What’s the line between news and misinformation? UNC is working to find out

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – The fight against misinformation rages on as the 2020 presidential election inches closer. Central North Carolina has become a hub for the battle.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill opened a center determined to help people figure out whether or not what they read is real.

“You just have to look around. Everything we do now is impacted by digital technologies and affecting our lives,” said Dr. Zeynep Tufekci.

That includes what people buy, how they think, and how they vote.

“We have a polarized society and cable news is part of this,” Tufekci said. “The online platforms have kind of doused fire to something that was already simmering, but there is an underlying problem to the way that we have public discussions.”

How do those articles and posts that seem to fall in line with a person’s values and ideals find them on social media? How about the fake stories meant to prey on a person’s fears? Who’s keeping track of all this?

Until recently, to a great extent, no one was.

So, the newly formed and funded UNC Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life is starting to study how it works and how to better control it. The center received $5 million from the Knight Foundation as part of a $50 million wide-scale campaign. Tufekci and Dr. Deen Freelon are helping to lead the effort at UNC.

“People just knowing and having a sense of the scale of the problem is really important. The scale of it, socially, but also individually the extent to which they’re vulnerable and the extent to which they’re being targeted by these types of operations,” said Freelon.

Those operations came to the forefront when “fake news” seemed to smother the internet during the 2016 election. Now, with 2020 almost here, how do media consumers stop it — or at least discern between what’s real and what isn’t.

“We’re delving into the area of information warfare, so this is really an attack, right? This is certainly the way the people who are perpetrating this see it,” Freelon said.

With it comes more clicks. The more clicks, the more money platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Google make.

“It’s happening so fast, it’s like a train moving and there’s a bunch of us saying, ‘Wait, how do we make sure that train doesn’t crash into that bridge that’s about to come up?” Tufekci asked.

The next big question is whether the social media giants will take that data and do anything with it.

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