January 21, 2022

New Report From Pew Research and Elon University: “The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online”

From Pew Research and Elon University (via an E-Mail News Release):

The proliferation of misinformation and false narratives online leaves experts uniformly concerned but deeply divided about the future, according to a study released today by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

More than 1,100 internet and technology experts responded in the summer of 2017 to a series of questions tied to the following theme: Will trusted methods emerge over the next 10 years to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem?

Among this sample, results were evenly split: 51% said the information environment will not improve, while 49% expect things to get better. The experts were asked to elaborate on their answers, yielding a wide range of opinions about the threat of misinformation, the prospect for solutions and the most promising strategies to pursue.

“Both camps of experts share the view that the current environment allows ‘fake news’ and weaponized narratives to flourish, but there is nothing resembling consensus about whether this problem can be successfully addressed in the coming decade,” said Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center’s director of internet and technology research. “They disagree about which side comes out on top in the escalating arms race: those who exploit human vulnerabilities with internet-speed manipulation tactics or those who create accurate information and reliable delivery systems for it.”

Report co-author Janna Anderson, director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, noted: “Many of these experts said that while the digital age has created countless information sources and magnified their potential influence globally, it has simultaneously reduced the influence of traditional news organizations that deliver objective, verified information. They said the information environment can’t be improved without more well-staffed, financially stable, independent news organizations whose signals are able to rise above the noise of misinformation to create a base of ‘common knowledge’ for the public. They also urged far more literacy efforts to help people differentiate fact from falsehood.”

An analysis of nearly 500 pages of written responses by these experts revealed four major themes, two expressing the thoughts of those who believe there will be no effective solution to ameliorating the misinformation challenge and two from those who believe there will be:

The information environment will not improve and human nature is to blame. Respondents supporting this theme say humans tend to be selfish, tribal, gullible, convenience seekers. They worry that today’s powerful information actors have an incentive to keep the status quo. And they think the future will be organized around social divisions, with a segment of population finding high-quality information, while “chaos will reign” for those who cannot afford or discern reliable information or show no interest in getting it.
The information environment will not improve because technology will create new challenges that can’t or won’t be countered effectively and at scale. These responses often described the bad actors as having a leg up on those seeking to combat misinformation. They expect that weaponized narratives and false information will be magnified by social media, online filter bubbles, bots and artificial intelligence.
The information environment will improve because technology will help label, filter or ban misinformation and thus upgrade the public’s ability to judge the quality and veracity of content. Those who think there will be improvements predict that the use of algorithmic filters, browsers, apps and plug-ins will diminish the potency and availability of misinformation. They think “assessability” schemes and “trust ratings” will help, too. Some say regulation will also play a part in curbing misinformation.
The information environment will improve because people will adjust and make things better. Some of these experts argue that misinformation is nothing new and society has always found a way to lessen its impact. They say as people become more skilled in sorting fact from fiction, the information environment will improve. Some expect crowdsourcing will play a prominent role in verifying facts by blocking those who propagate lies and propaganda. Some also showed support for distributed ledgers (blockchain).
A fifth theme: Experts in both camps who said technology alone can’t put a dent in the influence of misinformation urged two strategies to combat it: Tech can’t win the battle. The public must fund and support the production of objective

Direct to Report (HTML) ||| PDF Version (92 pages; PDF)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.