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Berkeley Talks: Berkeley experts on how to fight disinformation

"In the age of social media, the nature and threat of disinformation is quite distinct," says School of Information head

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100 cardboard cut outs of mark zuckerberg stand in front of the Capitol

Ahead of Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing in April 2018, the advocacy group, Avaaz, stood up 100 life-sized cutouts of Zuckerberg on the Capitol lawn. (Photo by Joe Flood via Flickr)

In Berkeley Talks episode 125, a panel of leading UC Berkeley experts describe the harms of disinformation and explore potential solutions to its spread, from measures to strengthen old-school local news media to government regulation of tech titans like Facebook and Twitter.

“Disinformation, of course, is not new and we should acknowledge that,” began Hany Farid, associate dean and head of Berkeley’s School of Information, at the Sept. 21 event. “For as long as there’s been information, there’s been disinformation. However, in the digital age, I don’t think it will surprise you to learn that, particularly in the age of social media, the nature and threat of disinformation is quite distinct. …This disinformation is leading — and I don’t think this is hyperbolic — to existential threats to our society and democracy.”

But blocking disinformation would challenge core American values, such as a free speech and freedom of the press, said Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. While the First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to regulate newspapers and what they publish, he said, it also limits the government’s ability to regulate social media companies.

“The assumption of the First Amendment, said Chemerinsky, is that generally more speech is better, and if false things are said, the best response is true things. …The alternative to allowing the marketplace of ideas to work is to give the government the power to decide what’s true and false and sensor what’s false. I am much more afraid of that than I am of allowing all the ideas to be expressed, even in light of the problems we’ve discussed.”

All panelists agreed that the solution to the spread of disinformation had to be multifaceted — and it wasn’t going to be easy.

“It’s not getting rid of free speech, it’s not just government regulation, it’s not just focusing on social media,” said Berkeley Journalism Dean Geeta Anand. “… We need to get beyond this state in human evolution where disinformation proliferates, where it’s given an unfair advantage.”

“I’m hopeful,” she continued, “that a coalition of people deeply committed to democracy will emerge and is emerging right now on this campus and elsewhere to stand up and invest in journalism as a vital tool for democracy, and in democracy itself, and in being bold, taking risks, thinking out of the box. I’m not holding on to any one principle that worked in the past as being the ultimate one that we all need to serve for the greater good of democracy in this country.”

Scholars in the panel:

  • Geeta Anand, dean of Berkeley Journalism
  • Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of Berkeley Law
  • Hany Farid, associate dean and head of the School of Information
  • Susan D. Hyde, chair of the Department of Political Science
  • john powell, director of the Othering & Belonging Institute
  • Moderator Henry Brady, former dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy

Watch a video of the discussion and read more on Berkeley News.

Listen to other episodes of Berkeley Talks: