Claire Wardle fights zombies.
Not the dead human kind, but rather the fake “facts” that have been debunked and disproven but refuse to die online. You know the kind. No need to reanimate them here. Wardle has taken to calling them “zombie rumors,” and it’s her life work to eradicate them in their many forms—misinformation posted by individuals in their personal Facebook feeds; massive disinformation campaigns coordinated by nation-state-backed propagandists; fake information perpetuated by persistent algorithms.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Wardle, but she’s one of the leading misinformation experts in the world, formerly of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and a founder of First Draft News, a nonprofit that fights misinformation around the globe. She’s currently the director of a new group called Civic, the Coalition to Integrate Values Into the Information Commons—which she runs with former founding director of the International Fact-Checking Network, Alexios Mantzarlis—and she came to TED 2019 to lay out her vision for the coalition: to bring the power of crowdsourcing to the fight against misinformation online.
Misinformation is in some ways a harder enemy to eliminate from the internet than violent or graphic imagery, or even hate speech, which can all be a little more easily classified into cut-and-dry categories for people and machines to recognize. What makes misinfo especially pernicious is one of its hallmarks: The “fact” in question often feels just true enough or plays into existing biases. Misinformation also exploits a basic emotion: fear. Especially “people’s biggest fears about their own safety and that of the people they love,” says Wardle.
That’s where the crowd can help. People are experts in their own cultural context, Wardle says, and if there’s some sort of system where they can bring that expertise to bear, maybe they can fight against zombie rumors trudging across the internet. But what does this system look like? In her talk at TED, Wardle described what she’s calling “a Wikipedia of Trust,” a back-end contributor model where regular people could volunteer to flag, decipher, and catalog fake memes and bot activity, and add crucial cultural context to images and information that might be a zombie rumor. They could even help build a repository of cryptographic hashes for zombie rumors that keep popping up, much the same way groups have done with child sexual assault imagery online, a way to assist in the automatic filtering of common misinformation.
Wardle suggested this platform would integrate with all the major social media platforms so everyone benefits from the hive mind. Ideally, the platforms would also share whatever information they’ve separately collected on misinfo campaigns with Civic’s crowdsourced platform.
“Facebook, for example, basically has all these projects around creating all of these fact checks that then sits in a database owned by Facebook,” she says. “We should have an open database, so all that work that gets done should benefit Reddit and should benefit Google and should benefit YouTube.”
Her next idea is more radical. Wardle hopes people will choose to provide Civic with direct access to their social media data so that researchers can analyze how the platforms are actually surfacing and treating misinformation. Researchers are mostly unable to see this kind of information right now because every social media feed is algorithmically optimized to each person. “My Facebook News Feed is very different than yours. That makes it impossible to examine what people are seeing,” she says. But to understand the misinformation ecosystem—how the data is shared, suggested, and spread—researchers like Wardle need to see social media the way users are actually seeing it. They need to see it through our eyes, in the context of our actual social media feeds. However, the platforms are very cautious about giving that data up—and understandably so, given that it was an academic researcher who first gathered the information on Facebook that led to the whole Cambridge Analytica debacle. Speaking of Facebook, the company has pledged to give researchers data to help understand misinformation, but Wardle says that collaboration is slow-going. Which is why Wardle wants users to donate their data—fully anonymized—to Civic directly. “Can we build out a global network of people who can donate their data to science?” she says.
This is all at the idea phase right now. Civic’s website only went live last week, and the coalition is currently incubating at the Ted foundation in New York City. But Civic recently completed a vaccine misinformation survey of social media users in 12 different countries, which gives a hint at what she’d like to do at scale. Her team asked people where they would look online if they wanted to get vaccine information for a friend, what they would search for, and then they asked for screenshots to be sent back. Naturally, the results varied depending on where people lived, or what their networks were like, or what platform they used to find new information. One notable result she shared on Instagram is that when users typed in “vacc,” the suggested tags and accounts were “vaccines kill” or “vaccines are the worst.”
“Only by doing it and getting people to send you their screenshots do you see the scale of these challenges,” she says. But perhaps an anonymized, global repository for people to share data could turn a simple screenshot into an arrow aimed at the zombie rumor hordes online.