Among her roles at the nonprofit think tank Rand Corporation, Jennifer Kavanagh studies disinformation and the relationship between U.S. political and media institutions.
When she thinks What the Future, she believes people need better skills and awareness for navigating information online along with a public dialogue between citizens, tech companies and policymakers to build a new online landscape that harnesses the good while minimizing disinformation and exploitation.
Kate MacArthur: How do governments contribute to disinformation?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Populist governments have always relied on a similar set of narratives, rooted in a sense of nostalgia, a return to an imagined past, and in many cases, a struggle of the average person against the elites. But these narratives are very often filled with false and misleading information intended to stir emotion and build a sense of belonging or community. Populist leaders harness disinformation to further their us vs. them platforms and this helps them sustain and grow their movements.
MacArthur: Since disinformation is being used to split people on fault lines from race to gender, how can media consumers combat that?
Kavanagh: It’s really important to be aware of the fact that there is so much false and misleading information. It’s easy for us as human beings, who are subject to cognitive biases and emotions and this desire to be right, to see something and cling onto it because of the emotional resonance or a reaction within us to want to share that information with our friends and family. But unless we check that the information is accurate and question it, then we are just contributing to the problem.
MacArthur: How do we improve consumers’ media literacy in this age of synthetic media and social engineering?
Kavanagh: The right way to think about media literacy, especially given the nature of the challenge and how systemic it is, is to think about how we can integrate the skills of media literacy into all the other subjects that we already teach. If it’s an extra set of things a consumer has to remember to do, it’s much less likely that they are going to develop that habit. But if it’s integrated into how that consumer thinks about the world, consumes information, looks at media, and produces media and branding, then it’s much more likely that over time, it’s going to become second nature.
MacArthur: We’re seeing this reckoning of our historical heroes and the history that’s been told. What happens when we question the fundamental truths of these bedrock institutions?
Kavanagh: This isn’t a case where truth is changing. But we’re finally taking the time to look at all the facts that exist and think carefully and critically about what that means for how we should think about these complex situations and individuals. It’s not a perfect analogy, but if you think about the process of scientific discovery, science evolves over time as we get better methods and better data. In the case of social justice, we’re being asked to think in a new way to integrate that additional information and to come up with a new interpretation that’s more accurate. And that lets us move toward justice and equity in a real way.
That creates a challenge for people who are unwilling to have that evolving interpretation. For those people who have a different worldview, these types of changes can be very disconcerting, and can contribute to distrust because they don’t understand why things are changing. But if we think about the fact that changes that occur because of better and more complete information aren’t bad, that they’re helping us move forward, that’s very different than a change that’s caused by disinformation where our view changes because someone is lying to us. Being able to distinguish between those two situations is really important.
MacArthur: So, what can news consumers do?
Kavanagh: For information consumers, the first step is just being aware of the really complicated and complex information environment, and then taking the steps to combat that. That requires a time commitment. It means that you have to be willing to look at multiple sources and to not just look at the headline on Twitter and retweet. Instead, consumers need to actually look at the article and see, does this seem factual? Is this something that I really want to share? It means searching for factual information when it may not be easy to find.
MacArthur: And for media?
Kavanagh: For journalists, whether they’re on television or print or online, the challenge is similar in recognizing that the first set of information they get may not be right. They need to resist the urge to be first. The economics of the industry push media outlets to publish first and check facts later. But journalists also need to think carefully about how and what information they report. The first concern is the tendency to repeat false information just to report that [something] happened. For example, so and so said, “X, Y and Z.” When X, Y, and Z are false, that is just spreading the false information. For that casual consumer who didn’t spend the time to actually investigate that information, they may think actually, X, Y, and Z are true. The second concern is the nature of the incentives driving the industry. There’s a desire to be sensational, to be a little bit edgy in order to attract those clicks. That can then contribute again to this problem of spreading misleading information or twisting and distorting of factual information.