CSU faculty discuss impacts, roles of media misinformation

Samantha Ye

Benjamin Clegg holds a microphone and speaks at a forum.
Benjamin Clegg speaks about misinformation, disinformation and information consumption during a panel discussion on Feb. 28 at the Morgan Library. (Forrest Czarnecki | The Collegian)

A group of four Colorado State University faculty members talked facts and their role in informing the public Thursday night at the Information, Misinformation and Disinformation Symposium.

Each panelist—Tim Amidon, assistant professor of English, Benjamin Clegg, psychology professor, Karen Dobos, associate professor of microbiology, and Rob Sica, social sciences and humanities liaison librarian—gave their own brief presentations on their thoughts surrounding the issue of facts and informing the public before taking questions from the audience.

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When it comes to “fake news” and bias, the panelists discussed the importance of education and the perceived gullibility of the public.

“Anytime we’re dealing with very complex decision-making, such as a vote or an election, it’s very unlikely (a bias meant to persuade someone known as a simple prime) can influence people in that kind of situation,” Clegg said.

Clegg said the big issue with fake or biased news is people’s tendency to repeat it even when they know it is false, therefore giving the information a higher chance of being taken as the truth.

Sica, who talked about the influence of fake news being overblown in the media, said fake news and accusations of fake news had little impact.

“It’s not clear to me … that people (embracing fake news causes) them to change their behaviors, their voting behaviors or their political beliefs in any way,” Sica said. “(I) think the idea that fake news is causing people to act on false information—there’s not a whole lot of evidence to support it.”

The quality of information matters to society. The way we communicate impacts the quality of communal aspects of our lives.” —Tim Amidon, English professor

Amidon, however, said just because the research on the fake news phenomenon was not completed yet did not mean no influence existed. Amidon said even though most people are aware of persuasion and biases in their information, media literacy education was still important in making sure it stayed that way, and he emphasized the importance of quality information.

“The quality of information matters to society,” Amidon said. “The way we communicate impacts the quality of communal aspects of our lives.”

Amidon said that since most institutions are the ones putting out information today, it would serve society well to invest and regulate those institutions to ensure high quality information.

Much of the discussion also revolved around the issue of climate change and the unique situation it is in regarding misinformation and public perception.

“When it comes to climate change, increasing education doesn’t necessarily change decisions,” Dobos said. “It’s the one science group that’s very hard to change. It’s really stratified on partisan lines.”

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Dobos, whose presentation focused on the importance of valid and vetted scientific research, said climate change information passed along by politicians and news media, both of whom the public find mostly untrustworthy according to the Pew Research Center, might not be as powerful as data conveyed directly by scientists who are highly trusted.

Clegg said the controversy around climate change was a good example of his presentation when he spoke about the importance of making people change their own minds through listening and asking them questions.

“If you want to change people’s minds, it’s not about conveying more information,” Clegg said. “The more you challenge things that they have as their world view and their identity, the harder that will be to do.”

Collegian reporter Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.