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MIT professor talks about dispelling rumors in a world of 'fake news'

Adam Berinsky, a political scientist, talks with Brian Brandt, a Regional Managin Director with Principal Financial Group, about his research into “fake news” at NewBo Evolve at the DoubleTree Convention Center in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Adam Berinsky, a political scientist, talks with Brian Brandt, a Regional Managin Director with Principal Financial Group, about his research into “fake news” at NewBo Evolve at the DoubleTree Convention Center in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — In an environment where both news and “fake news” travels at breakneck speeds, the public’s ability — and willingness — to separate truth from fiction is a constant battle.

Adam Berinsky, Ph.D. with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s department of political science and an expert on political rumors and misinformation, on Sunday cautioned about 50 attendees at Cedar Rapids’ “newbo evolve” festival that the solution to “fake news” is not simple.

“It’s really, really hard. Rumors are sticky. They keep coming back and back again,” Berinsky said. “I think recognizing it’s a hard problem is the important first step.”

What’s more, the internet’s ability to spread information, including fact and fiction, in an instant intensifies the challenge. In the past, rumors spread through word-of-mouth, on billboards or in publications — today, information spreads near instantly.

“This is how things spread today. The internet has changed how we think about these rumors, so it’s especially important to think about who believes this, why and how do we correct it?” he said.

Berinsky said it starts with how people are programmed. People have a general tendency for conspiratorial thinking and are loyal to their political party.

Rumors exist on both sides of the aisle. For example, he said, Republicans are more likely to question President Barack Obama’s citizenship, while Democrats are more likely to believe 9/11 conspiracies.

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Addressing rumors is not an easy task, he added, noting that, for many, authoritarian sources — such as professors, experts or fact-checking organizations — can only do so much, as dispelling rumors takes more than simply presenting the facts.

“Not all speakers are equally credible,” he said.

Gayle Elliott of Iowa City, who attended Berinsky’s presentations Saturday and Sunday, said she saw firsthand the struggle of identifying what’s true and what’s not.

And the political atmosphere seems to be growing more volatile, she added.

“I used to be such a news junkie, but it’s just kind of too much,” she said.

Elliott said she was encouraged to seek out what Berinsky described as the most credible sources.

Berinsky wrote a 2015 study titled “Rumors and Health Care Reform: Experiments in Political Misinformation,” which explored belief in political rumors — specifically surrounding health care reforms passed by Congress in 2010.

In the study, Berinsky exposed respondents to varying information on a “death panel” rumor, which falsely claimed elderly and sick individuals would be provided health care based on their worth to society. In addition, some respondents also were provided corrections to the rumor.

Berinsky said politicians speaking out against their own party’s interests are considered some of the most credible sources.

“You need to find someone who is speaking against their apparent interest,” he said Sunday.

While the world of politics seems to grow more split by the day, there is hope, Berinsky added.

Those on the far ends of the aisle, whether Republican or Democrat, may be nearly impossible to persuade, he said, but the majority of people are somewhere in the middle in a “crossfire of bad information.” These people are not seeking out rumors but are hearing them, he said.

“There are going to be 20 percent of people on the left and 20 percent on the right who, no matter what, aren’t going to believe what you say, but there’s people in the middle,” he said. “Those people don’t care and don’t follow, but are still participating in politics, and they vote based on what they hear, so I think cleaning up the environment is an important goal.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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