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Misinformation expert warns about ‘terrifying’ implications for future elections

But on the Rhode Island Report podcast, Claire Wardle says she remains hopeful that younger generations will figure out how to cut through the conspiracy theories, doctored photos, and lies.

Claire Wardle, co-founder and co-director of the Information Futures Lab at the Brown University School of Public Health, appeared on the Rhode Island Report podcast.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — Americans are awash in misinformation, basing their conclusions on different worldviews and information systems, and the implications for democracy are “terrifying.”

That’s the conclusion that Claire Wardle, co-founder of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University’s School of Public Health, has reached after studying misinformation for a decade.

“When you have half the country that fundamentally does not believe that the system of democracy, that the electoral process is one that they trust — I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer — but I am really concerned around the midterms,” Wardle said on the Rhode Island Report podcast.

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The situation could be even worse when the next presidential election rolls around in 2024, she said.

“I think there’ll be a number of races where we just won’t have a winner,” Wardle said. “There won’t be the infrastructure to call some races, and I don’t know where where we end up. That’s why I think it’s a terrifying situation.”

Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly made the false the claim that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him, and polls show that up to 70 percent of Republicans don’t see President Biden as the legitimate winner.

Wardle explained that people have emotional, and not strictly rational, reactions to information, and politicians can take advantage of the “human frailty” that makes us predisposed to look for and believe information that reinforces our worldview.

“There’s two different realities in this country,” she said. “Everything they look at, everything they watch on television, if they listen to a radio, or the conversations with their friends at the golf club or at the school gate, everybody they know is saying the same thing. So for them, that is the reality.”

Misinformation also posed a “huge problem” during the pandemic, Wardle said.

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“The pandemic was this crisis moment where everybody’s life was turned upside down, and you saw people deliberately trying to take advantage of that situation,” by “flooding social media with all sorts of false cures and scare mongering stories,” she said.

That has prompted the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other institutions to begin examining how to best communicate during future public health crises, she said.

In decades past, the nation relied a small number of network news shows, and it had many more vibrant newspapers providing solid information to people, Wardle noted.

“We had trusted gatekeepers,” she said. “Now, when anybody can publish, if you seek out information, you will find information that reinforces your worldview. And so the pandemic was just bad information literally on steroids.”

And it’s not members of the younger generations sharing misinformation, Wardle said, noting that a 2019 study published in Science Advances found that social media users over 65 shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake news domains as the youngest age group.

Wardle said the new cell phones we carry with us are powerful, giving us the ability to post messages that can go around the globe in an instant. But “with great power comes great responsibility,” she said, quoting Uncle Ben’s advice to Peter Parker in Spider-Man comics and films.

Wardle offered some “rules of the road” to help prevent us from sharing misinformation.

For example, if you have something you really want to share online, ask yourself: “Are you the right person to share this? Are you an epidemiologist? Are you a Ukraine war (expert)? How do you know? And who is benefiting from you sharing it?” she said. “If it’s your amazing Irish stew that you made last night, you are the expert. But for most other things, you probably aren’t the expert.”

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Despite the proliferation of misinformation, Wardle said she believes the next generation will be able to find a way to cut through the falsehoods.

“I’m really hopeful,” she said. “It’s hard to get up every day when the alarm goes off spending time in the horrible armpits of the Internet. But actually I really believe that we will get through it.” Younger people “get this,” she said, “and they’re really excited to take part in helping teach people how we learn to navigate this space.”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.




Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.