Experts on Camera

Dr. Claire Wardle: The science of misinformation

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Misinformation in the United States is widespread on social media and other channels, on topics ranging from politics to public health.

On Thursday, October 21, 2021, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Claire Wardle, who has studied this issue for more than a decade and now leads a nonprofit focused on protecting individuals and communities from harmful misinformation. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.

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CLAIRE WARDLE: My name is Claire Wardle, and I am the director of First Draft, and we are a nonprofit dedicated to tackling the challenges of misinformation. For the last decade, I’ve been researching and training people in this issue that has now become the thing that we’re all obsessed with.

Interview with SciLine

What is the difference between mis- and disinformation?


CLAIRE WARDLE: So disinformation is deliberate. So remember the D’s. It’s deliberate, harmful information that people create and share knowing that it’s going to cause harm. Misinformation is when it’s also misleading and false information, but the people sharing it don’t realize that it’s false or misleading, and they certainly don’t mean any harm. So I think about my mum re-sharing something on Facebook. She would be horrified that she was doing anything wrong. She’s doing it because she wants to help her community and her friends. So that difference is important. Disinformation is deliberate hoaxing, deliberately trying to cause harm. Misinformation is, unfortunately, what we’re all being seduced into sharing just because we don’t realize.

What is the role of social media in spreading misinformation?


CLAIRE WARDLE: We’ve always had misinformation. As humans, we like to gossip. We like to share things that we might not know are 100% true. But unfortunately, in an era of social media, it is very, very easy to create false or misleading information, and it means that it spreads at a speed that we’ve never seen before. Because it takes me one swipe of my thumb, and it takes me, you know, a millisecond. But then when we’re all doing the same thing, it can reach right around the globe in less than a minute. And we’ve never really had that form of technology before that would allow something to travel at that speed.

Are there real-world, offline harms caused by misinformation?


CLAIRE WARDLE: Sometimes people like to think that misinformation isn’t really a problem. It’s frivolous. It’s a meme on Instagram. How much harm can it do? But unfortunately, as we’ve seen during this pandemic, it can lead people to make decisions around their own health and those of their family that are leading to real-world harms. It might mean that people think that they can gargle salt water. That would prevent COVID. And that isn’t preventing COVID, and people can get sick. People are making decisions not to get vaccinated. And we’re, unfortunately, seeing people losing their lives because of that. So when people say it’s harmless, it’s frivolous, it’s not true. There are real-world harms to misinformation because it impacts people’s decisions that they’re making.

What has changed about misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic?


CLAIRE WARDLE: Misinformation has always been with us. But this time, partly because we’re all so frightened – our lives have been turned upside-down. This thing has landed on us, and it’s impacted how we work, how we see our families, how we move around the country and the world. And so in that environment, we’re all seeking explanations. We want information that’s going to make us feel better. But unfortunately, we kind of can’t grab onto that information because everything is changing. Science is about the evolution of knowledge. We know more as we do more research. So unfortunately, in this pandemic we’ve seen a lot of misinformation spreading because people are desperately seeking, oh, if I do that, I’ll be protected. If I do that, I’ll be safe. And unfortunately, that’s not true. But it also is a challenge because so much is changing all the time that we’re kind of in this landscape where it’s hard or it feels like we don’t know who to trust or what to trust. And so all these factors are kind of coming together to create what we’re in now, which is a real problem with misinformation.

How can people spot, not fall for and avoid spreading misinformation?


CLAIRE WARDLE: The No. 1 thing to remember is, when you press publish on a post or even if you share something that somebody else has posted, you then are kind of responsible for that information. And I think sometimes there’s this idea of, oh, whatever it doesn’t really matter. It’s just Facebook. But when we share something, we are pushing information out into the world, and there are many people who trust you. They trust me. We trust each other. And so when we share something, you have to be 100% sure that it is true. So the No. 1 thing is, who is the source? Is this the kind of person that you believe would have the latest, up-to-date information? And if you’re not 100% absolutely positive, it’s not worth the risk. So I think sometimes we think, oh, we’re sharing. We’re being helpful. But actually, we can do more harm. So leave it to the experts. I mean, share your opinion. But when it comes to facts – so-called facts that people believe – this is the thing I should know – are you the best person to be sharing that? And I think in many situations, many of us aren’t the best people to be doing that sharing of that kind of information.

What have researchers recently found out about misinformation?


CLAIRE WARDLE: We’ve just completed some research at First Draft where we were looking at the kind of narratives circulating in Black spaces online. I mean, as we know, vaccination rates among certain communities of color are lower, and we wanted to understand whether misinformation was impacting that. And what it shows is that communities are often sharing this kind of content because they care for each other. People want to give each other what looks like the latest information. And quite rightly, there are some communities that don’t necessarily trust the government because of previous historical events or their own personal experience with the health care system. And so when we say misinformation, sometimes it feels like, oh, you’re a bad person for spreading misinformation. What we need to understand is that all of us are overwhelmed by information online. We’re trying to do our best. When we share this content, it’s often because we care about our loved ones, and we’re trying to protect them. And I think sometimes even the term misinformation isn’t that useful. And so looking specifically at Black spaces online, what we saw is people just trying to find out what was true and what wasn’t and helping each other. And unfortunately, if there is an absence of trusted voices in those spaces, those who are pushing – deliberately pushing false and misleading information are doing real harm.

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