Campus & Community

Dr. Heidi Julien’s Guidelines on How to Protect Yourself (and Others) from Misinformation

Dr. Heidi Julien Photograph

“[Misinformation] is a crisis for democracy, freedom of expression, good governance, health and wellbeing, and success in academia and the workplace.”

“False news spreads faster than the truth,” said Heidi Julien, PhD, during her in-person and virtual presentation, “Misinformation and Information Behavior: Challenges for the Information Professions.”

Julien, a Professor and Exceptional Scholar in the Department of Information Science at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York (SUNY), is the 2024 recipient of the Allen Smith Visiting Scholars Fellowship, an annual award celebrating the life of professor Allen Smith who taught at the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) for 31 years. Upon his passing, a visiting scholars fellowship was endowed to bring respected scholars who work in the broad areas of reference, humanities, and oral history to come to SLIS and share their expertise.

Julien’s research interests include a focus on digital literacy and information behavior. In her talk, she noted that Europe is far ahead of the United States in dealing with these challenges, having established a code of practice on disinformation in 2022. Meanwhile, manipulation strategies are employed by politicians and their followers, including discrediting the media, fear mongering, and moral outrage. But these are not new phenomena; Julien likened this intentional disinformation to when “cigarette companies denied that tobacco was harmful.” She cited a rise of “anti-intellectualism and refusal to recognize expertise,” along with “declining trust in mainstream media,” and the belief that “feeling is more important than truth.”

In addition, Julien said, “people’s information behavior [how they search for information online] both facilitates this spread and challenges attempts to counter it.” The way information spreads via social media has created some uniquely modern issues, including a “filter bubble,” in which algorithms tailor the content we see online, leading to “echo chambers,” in which this content we see through these channels reinforces what we already believe. The result is polarization.

“Big tech industries are indifferent to the use of misinformation on their platforms,” said Julien. “They want to maximize engagement [and profits] without concern for accuracy.” Further challenges are now posed by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which can generate false information that is often difficult to verify.

“All of this is a crisis for democracy, freedom of expression, good governance, health and wellbeing, and success in academia and the workplace,” said Julien. Though the picture is admittedly bleak, there is a way to solve the problem.

According to Julien, “Digital Literacy offers a set of skills to interpret and evaluate information.” Though, she admitted, communicating the value of these skills will require a culture shift. “If your neighbors are doing something, you are more inclined to do the same,” she said. “If it’s normal to think critically and seek balanced information, then that becomes the norm.” If not, people will adhere to their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. “Resistance to changing our beliefs is strong, especially when they are central to our identity.” The power of emotion over logic, and the simplicity of misinformation — as opposed to the complexities of scientific argument — make these barriers particularly difficult to overcome.

The key to media literacy, for Julien, is “to make dogmatism and outrage uncool. We need to make thoughtful open-mindedness and scientific thinking cool.” Leaders should be encouraged to call out lies whenever possible, and those who are digitally literate should also take on that leadership role.

“What we need to do is educate and advocate,” says Julien. “Engage on these issues with family and friends.” Julien recommends we teach individuals how to spot conspiracy theories and limit our “liking” and sharing of stories on social media. Present facts you have vetted by lateral reading — a technique used by fact-checkers, moving from source to source focused on a specific fact for verification.

Also, be aware of the source of your news. While traditional mainstream news sources are not unbiased, many have long standing reputations as good news sources, such as The Guardian, CBC, The New York Times, and NPR. “The worst thing is to allow a platform (Google or Apple) to feed us our news.”

For additional reading, Heidi Julien recommends the News Literacy Libguide.

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Alisa M. Libby