Kate Starbird. Photograph by Carlton Canary.
Kate Starbird Tweets Responsibly
The cofounder of UW’s Center for an Informed Public sniffs out conspiracy theories.
Believe it or not, Kate Starbird initially scoured the internet for good or, in the parlance of academia, “pro-social” behavior. As a PhD student at the University of Colorado in 2009, she explored how people used social media to help each other in the aftermath of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. Heartwarming stuff, basically, before heart emojis were a thing.
Not so much anymore. As a cofounder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, the former Storm hooper spends her days going down darker internet rabbit holes, combing through conspiracy theories and examining how they spread online in the Misinformation Age. Which, no matter how many times it’s said, isn’t just a Trump-supporting uncle’s problem. “Everyone’s vulnerable to misinformation,” says Starbird.
Take Covid, for instance. The pandemic was an “absolute perfect storm” for the spread of false info, intentional or otherwise. With an extended period of uncertainty and shifting scientific data, people were left to their own devices—quite literally—to make sense of the findings. Contrary to popular belief, though, the people sharing misinformation on masks and vaccines weren’t necessarily neglecting the science, Starbird says. Anti-vaxxers could find studies outside the all-important scientific consensus. “They often share and pick the science they like, to support the ideas that they want to believe.” Goosebumps, in other words, but with scarier ramifications.
It’s this nuanced analysis of digital epistemology that distinguishes Starbird’s work from run-of-the-mill lamentations about a dearth of facts on social media (hasty fact-checks, it turns out, can amplify conspiracy theories). Often her inquiries have centered on elections. By 2016, networks of fake foreign accounts were repeatedly spreading disinformation, or intentionally false info. In 2020, Starbird and other researchers found something more troubling: Voter fraud narratives stemmed from everyday people, from blue checks to local news outlets. Some unwittingly advanced this false narrative by reporting that ballots had been stolen from mailboxes. The stories lacked context; mail gets lifted regardless of whether an election is going on.
With midterms coming up, the center will lean on a $2.25 million grant to continue its “rapid response” to disinformation. Starbird will direct the center for the next two years, playing an integral role in sniffing out these nefarious networks and swiftly communicating their inaccuracies to leaders in government and media, as well as the broader public.
Now those are posts worth hearting too.—Benjamin Cassidy
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