Defending our democracy against disinformation

Journalism / Article

This article was originally published on the University of Washington’s President’s Blog.

On July 22, 2019, Knight made a $50 million investment to develop a new field of research around technology’s impact on democracy, including a $5 million investment in the University of Washington (UW) to create the Center for an Informed Public. UW President Ana Mari Cauce shares details below.

The foundations of our democracy rest on the principles enshrined in the Constitution – including freedom of expression, the right to elect our leaders and a free press. But as we continue to grapple with the sudden acceleration and volume of communication in the digital age, those foundations are jeopardized by a rising tide of misinformation and disinformation.

Whether sponsored by foreign actors or advanced by domestic groups and individuals, the many different forms of misinformation, disinformation and “fake news” are a very real threat to our society. That’s why I’m pleased that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has made a significant investment to create the UW Center for an Informed Public.

Misinformation and disinformation undermine our democratic discourse across the political spectrum. They sow division when we could be working toward common goals, grounded in facts that inform our shared values. Research tells us that despite record polarization in legislative votes, Americans really aren’t so far apart on many of the issues we care most deeply about, like our children’s futures, economic opportunity, having access to clean air and water, or the fairness of our justice system. We also know that authoritarian movements around the world often use disinformation to sow distrust in all information, thereby breaking the bonds within a society – starting with a broad agreement on basic facts – that are essential to democratic governance.

Because this is an issue that crosses a range of disciplines, the Center for an Informed Public will take broad-based approach to combating strategic misinformation, promoting an informed society and strengthening the democratic discourse. Fields like computer science, sociology and law are all vital to combating this threat, as will be using the full range of tools at our disposal – from technology to policy to education. The Center’s principal investigators include the inaugural director Jevin West, Emma Spiro, Chris Coward, Kate Starbird and Ryan Calo.

I have written before about the urgent need for civic education in building a healthy democracy, and the critical role that universities like the UW must play in providing that education. I’m delighted that through the Center, we can advance this important work, in service to our democracy, and to our students who will carry these ideals forward — for our state, our country and our world.

Ana Mari Cauce is president of the University of Washington.


Image: University of Washington hosted its first-annual Misinfo Day in March 2019 to teach local high school students how to be more informed media and news consumers. Credit: University of Washington (Mark Stone).