Philomathean Society Hosts Democracy and Disinformation Panel

(L to R) Claire Wardle, John Palfrey, Dipayan Ghosh, and Jonathan Zittrain discussed and debated misinformation and disinformation

The Philomathean Society hosted “Democracy and Disinformation: Digital Media in the 2020 Presidential Election” this past Saturday in Kemper Auditorium. The event consisted of a panel of experts on the role of media in today’s political environment Claire Wardle, Dipayan Ghosh, Jonathan Zittrain, and former Head of School John Palfrey shared their perspectives.

Philo put the event together with hopes of engaging the Andover community and shedding more light on the issues of misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is false information propagated by error, while disinformation is intentionally incorrect for the purposes of pushing an agenda. Olivia Lai ’20, Co-President of the Philomathean Society, shared the process of organizing the panel and what inspired her to do so. She also detailed how the topic is relevant in today’s political climate and why she felt the need to address it.

“We wanted to host a panel or a speaker event in general, because we wanted to find a way to engage other people outside of the Philomathean community—we wanted to create a space for public discourse. The original idea for the event was to have two experts with opposing opinions debating one specific issue—but as we found different speakers and found a topic that worked for them, it kind of morphed into a panel, which I actually ended up preferring. In terms of topic, we actually chose the speakers before the topic. We got Palfrey on, and then we thought of what Palfrey could speak to, and we built the panel around that,” said Lai.

Lai continued, “Misinformation and disinformation are important because [they influence] and [have] to do with the very core of our democratic system as it relies upon free and fair elections. So if those elections are compromised in any way by [misinformation] or disinformation, then that entire structure can fall. So this is why I think it’s so important, especially in the upcoming 2020 election.”

The panel discussed the influence of social media and journalism on elections and the danger that disinformation and misinformation pose on the general public. The panelists considered a variety of different solutions to the complex issue, often finding points of contention and debating different takes on the problem. Palfrey saw the problem as an issue concerning democracy.

“I think there’s a meta-question though that I think everyone should engage with, which is: whether or not a platform that we all use, or a large number of people use, over a billion people in the world and certainly the majority of people in this room use, has any obligation at all, to do anything. I think that’s a pretty basic democratic question, which is these are very important brokers of information and how we see the world, and at least in the case of Facebook, much as most companies in have done for two decades have done, they’ve said, ‘we have basically no obligation whatsoever, we are there to make money,’” said Palfrey.

Zittrain provided another proposal for educating people on the effects of digital misinformation. He outlined the idea of having high school students around the nation evaluate the validity of advertisements and potentially misleading social media posts.

“So here’s the pitch, real quick: For all the ads being proposed or targetted, which there will probably one and 10,000,000 of in the upcoming season getting queued up– they can have their veracity judged not by Facebook, but by panels of high school students as part of their course work, graded by their teachers. So instead of writing a three paragraph essay about Europe being a land of contrasts, you would write an essay about that video of Nancy Pelosi ripping the speech up throughout the whole [State of the Union address], whether it’s false and whether it can convey a wrong impressions, and whether under particular standards that exist it shouldn’t be allowed to circulate as a paid ad,” said Zittrain.

Zittrain continued, “And the decision by that panel of students possibly aided by a librarian from their school and by being randomly assigned to a school somewhere in America, would in fact decide the issue for that ad. The students might get it wrong, and you might be unhappy if you’re the politician, but you’re having it be judged by some of the constituency that you’re trying to reach. And the exercise of doing it, the students writing out their explanation as to why can go into that library that is so woefully under revision right now. That might be a way we would find it lending legitimacy to the decision that might be more important than accuracy because there’s not much ground truth for accuracy these days.”

Zittrain’s proposal inspired students in attendance to reflect on how their Andover education helps them learn how to approach biased media and digest information circulating online. Most students agreed that analytical work done in humanities courses provided a solid base on how to interpret media. However, Giovanni Pierre ’21, Philomathean Board Member, contended that there needs to be a greater focus on social media and modern age online literacy in Andover curriculum.

“Everything is trying to make you feel a certain way. Every type of press is good press, even if it’s bad. As for here, I guess the only thing people could do is maybe have more electives that cover online literacy, or classes on journalism in the modern age. I mean, we have a fully functioning newspaper here that most of the school is involved with. But we still get the majority of our news online, so a journalism class on online writing and reading would be helpful,” said Pierre.

Maggie Kalkstein ’23, who attended the event in hopes of becoming more informed, also shared a similar outlook. She described her relationship with social media and how it can be challenging to trust the information she receives from popular digital platforms.

“I think we maybe aren’t looking at it on the social media side. We’re reading articles in class and discussing historical texts. Still, I’m getting most of my news or most of the things I need to think critically about, through Twitter and Instagram. I have a newsletter I read every morning, and I know it’s reliable, but I don’t need to be analyzing that in the same way, I need to be analyzing other, more widely available sources. I think the school has done a great job giving me that base level [knowledge], but I think extending further upon it is important,” said Kalkstein.