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Calling BS in an Age of Misinformation

A special League of Women Voters year-end program was given by University of Washington professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom on December 7 at Benaroya Hall. “Calling BS,” a class in examining information with a critical eye, especially on social media, has become a very popular class at the University, and colleges and universities around the country have requested the syllabus, so the class is spreading. The professors, in a fast-paced, alternating presenter style, began with an overview of how information has been passed down through the centuries, beginning with illuminated manuscripts to today’s social media.

Although “BS” has been passed on throughout history, it’s much easier to spread it in today’s fast-paced information world. They gave several examples of BS from current events that spread quickly and were widely believed by some. For example, the pedophile ring supposedly run by Clinton supporters at the Comet Pizza house actually resulted in someone who believed it taking it on himself to “rescue” the children and destroy the place. Even though the man was arrested and the entire story completely debunked, some people still maintained that it was true.

Another example given was about sighting of singer Taylor Swift on a date with Senator Joseph McCarthy. One recipient quickly pointed out that despite the “proof” of the photo taken of the date, Senator McCarthy has been dead for 50 years, long before the young singer was even born.

When dealing with fake news, recipients must question the source: Who is telling me this? How do they know? What’s in it for them? We should not be intimidated by authoritative-sounding sources with their graphs and tables. And we should avoid “confirmation bias” situations, in which we believe something because it supports our already decided opinions. Is it possible that we will someday have an automated fake news detector? Probably not, since it’s harder to detect than spam. It should be noted that despite the ease of proliferating fake news, it takes far more effort to retract it. Professor West also believes that published research (information that has been vetted by peer review) should have a conflict of information disclaimer. The League was acknowledged for its longstanding efforts to provide useful and timely information to the voter. But their advice to us was: Think more. Share less. The presenters will publish a book in Spring 2018.

~Kiku Hayashi

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