Office of the President

July 30, 2019

Defending our democracy against disinformation

Ana Mari Cauce

Learn more about the people and organizations leading the Center for an Informed Public

The Information School

Human Centered Design & Engineering

The UW School of Law

UW Communication Leadership Program

Additional funding is made possible by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

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.