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Fighting Misinformation: Pumping up News Feeds With Facts

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Monday, October 11, 2021   

MADISON, Wis. -- How do you fight an onslaught of misinformation surrounding the 2020 election? A University of Wisconsin communications professor said a good place to start is a heavy load of facts delivered through social media ad-buys.

Mike Wagner, professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is part of a team that was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to find effective ways to combat online misinformation.

The project involves identifying where falsehoods are proliferating, asking trusted journalists to fact-check those messages, and then countering with purchased social media ads containing verified details.

Wagner said they hope to get those follow-up messages in the news feeds of people sharing bad information.

"Our goal is not to change the hearts of the people who are trying to sow chaos," Wagner explained. "Our goal is to try to find those people who are exposed to that information, and show them that there is verifiably accurate information that's different."

He pointed out the mission centers around false claims about the integrity of last year's presidential vote, as well as misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines. It comes on the heels of a GOP-led election audit in Wisconsin, which has come under fire as being anti-democratic. Republican leaders maintain it is about ensuring a fair process, but opponents say it will create lasting harm.

Wagner argued misinformation shared on platforms like Facebook and Twitter about these topics has resulted in a public health threat. He feels it gets in the way of responding to the needs facing the country.

"It would be much more useful for the maintenance of our country if we were debating our ideas rather than debating, 'Did Joe Biden win the election? Or, do COVID vaccines contain microchips for government monitoring?'" Wagner contended.

The team acknowledged the challenges in getting through to audiences who disavow mainstream news sources. Wagner emphasized they are being direct in placing their ads, as opposed to speaking through media that already provide information from reliable sources. Findings from the project are expected to be released next summer.


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