Office of the Provost

April 23, 2018

Fake news and misinformation: Why teaching critical thinking is crucial for democracy

Jerry Baldasty

Democracies live and die by the ability of their people to access information and engage in robust discussions based upon facts. These days, however, our democracies are straining under the weight of the growing distrust of core societal institutions. Our institutions are under siege – as people have lost faith in religious organizations, higher education, government and the media.

It’s the result of ongoing, systematic efforts to denigrate the truth and sow seeds of suspicion of widely-accepted assumptions, such as the threat of climate change, the value of higher education and the benefits of immigration.

The weapon of choice in this war of misinformation and disinformation: fake news, which I see as the purposeful fabrication of truth. This undermines our ability to create policies that address big problems. This undermines our ability to even identify the problems.

This is why it is crucial that we educate our students how to think critically, access and analyze data, and, above all, question the answers. If our students are going to become leaders, scientists, public officials, writers, business people, teachers – even informed voters – they need these skills.

Many of our faculty have been teaching students to think critically for many years. But now, the need is more important than ever as our devices flash yet another outrageous headline every day. Social media is designed to push information to us, whether we want it or not.

About a year ago, I convened a group of faculty to help brainstorm what we could – and should – do about combatting disinformation. One result is a website full of resources, created by Marisa Nickle, senior director of strategy and academic initiatives in the Provost’s Office, and Jessica Albano, research and assistant news librarian for the Department of Communication and UW Libraries, with input from the faculty group.

The other is a lecture series for students, faculty, staff and the community — and this year, we started with some of our own faculty. The final lecture in the series, focused on “the New Global Politics of Weaponized AI Propaganda,” takes place Monday, April 30, and I encourage you to attend.

Last week, Kate Starbird, assistant professor in Human Centered Design and Engineering, addressed online disinformation spread during crisis events. Her lecture, “Muddied Waters: Online Disinformation During Crisis Events,” is posted online. She and her team of UW students analyzed Twitter traffic – especially rumors, “alternate narratives” and conspiracy theories – in the wake of crisis event. They determined that disinformation is spread equally on the left and the right of the political spheres to exploit our vulnerabilities and advance neopolitical goals.

These rumors, such as those following the Florida and Sandy Hook school shootings, cast doubt on the motivations of those who experienced the crises – and even question whether the crises happened in the first place. We, as consumers of information, in turn, can become confused by this and give up trying to understand it. Muddled thinking leaves us vulnerable to manipulation. You may learn more about Kate and her research here.

Earlier this week, we heard from Jevin West, iSchool assistant professor who, along with Carl Bergstrom, professor of Biology, developed the wildly popular class, “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning in a Digital World.” Jevin gave us strategies to spot misleading information by helping us detect dangerous falsehoods “cloaked in data, figures, statistics and algorithms”— so that we can effectively combat them. Learn more about Jevin and his work here.

The series will culminate at 5 p.m., Monday, April 30, in the HUB Lyceum, with Berit Anderson, CEO and editor-in-chief of, a media company covering the future of technology through investigative reporting, analysis and science fiction. In her talk, “The New Global Politics of Weaponized Al Propaganda,” Berit will take a hard look at how elections around the world can be influenced by online media, and how individuals can help.

This is an important moment in democracy. And it is up to us to educate our students – and ourselves – to become critical thinkers, and conscientious consumers and creators of content, and to help restore trust in our institutions.