Social media disinformation – Illinois State University News

November 13, 2022
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Dr. Joseph Zompetti was researching Russian disinformation leading up to the Ukraine invasion, but he wanted to do more. The communications professor teaches courses on divisive discourse, and the invasion, along with the January 6 insurrection and anti-vaccination rhetoric, provided plenty of fodder for conversations about polarized political communication.
“The idea of disinformation naturally comes into those conversations,” he said. “People’s beliefs, attitudes, and values are often formed by what they see on social media or from friends and family, and a lot of those may be inaccurate or based on disinformation.”
As the 2022 Civic & Digital Literacy Fellow for the Center for Civic Engagement, he had an opportunity to expand his research. He added the student perspective by working with Michael Severino, the 2022 Student Civic Engagement Fellow. They studied how social media algorithms manipulate data to spread disinformation, looking at Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.
In recent years, social media algorithms have changed. News feeds used to run in reverse chronological order, with the most recent post appearing first. Now algorithms influence the feed, showing content at the top that’s believed to be relevant to the user. Seeing posts that confirm our opinions is empowering and can make us believe those with other viewpoints are wrong, Zompetti said. And that’s a threat to democracy.
“What is vital for democracy is that we try to understand where other people are coming from,” he said. “Democracy is supposed to encompass differences, but if everyone who doesn’t think like me is the enemy, then we’re in real trouble. We think that there really is only one side to the story, and when somebody says something different, we look at them and think they’re crazy, and they look at us and think we’re crazy. There’s really no middle ground anymore.”
He tells his students that listening to and considering different viewpoints is vital.
Zompetti’s work with Severino and student Hannah Delorto produced the paper, “The Rhetorical Implications of Social Media Misinformation: Platform Algorithms During a Global Pandemic,” which was presented at the Symposium on Misinformation and Global Communication, sponsored by Shanghai International Studies University.
The next step is to create a presentation that will impact Illinois State University more directly, Zompetti said. He’s working on a digital literacy presentation that faculty and campus organizations can use. It includes the SIFT Model, which puts the responsibility on the user to stop, investigate the source, find better coverage, and trace claims, quotes, and media to their original context.  
“Even if you don’t do all four, stop and expose yourself to a variety of different things,” Zompetti said. “We tend to congregate with like-minded people. And we don’t like to be told we’re wrong, so we follow people who have similar ideologies.”
Severino believes the isolation of the pandemic caused disinformation to flourish.
“People’s understanding of disinformation got really crushed when they were on their phones and devices 24 hours a day,” he said. “Even fact-checking with a professor in person or friend in person went right out the door when people were locked inside for months.”
No one is going to curate our social media for the truth, and we can’t rely on owners of social media platforms to solve this, Zompetti said.
“We have to shift the focus away from expecting them to do anything and put the onus on us, the users. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there but if we can try and improve it a little it might be worth it.”

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