Defending democracy
in the digital age

By Asad Tacy

The information revolution has empowered humanity in unprecedented ways, allowing people across our planet to communicate instantaneously and access more information than ever before. However, this revolution has not been without significant downsides. Deep fakes, sockpuppet accounts, algorithm-produced echo chambers, and clickbait journalism have put a strain on democracies across the world by misleading, dividing, and diminishing trust in institutions such as science and journalism.

To address the growing problem of misinformation and its effects on democratic institutions, the iSchool, UW School of Law, and department of human centered design and engineering partnered to co-found the Center for an Informed Public (CIP) in December 2019.

This new multidisciplinary research center is on a mission to “resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society and strengthen democratic discourse” by bringing together world-class researchers, laboratories, thought leaders, and practitioners.

A primary objective of the CIP is to shorten the cycle between research and implementation; with information technology companies continuously updating their algorithms and bad actors regularly innovating new methods of spreading misinformation, the transition from research to action must be made as rapid as possible. To achieve this, the CIP has set its focus on research, education, policy, and engagement.

On the research front, the CIP supports studies conducted by faculty, research scientists, and graduate students in disciplines spanning from sociology to law to information science. Despite the variety in disciplines, all research conducted by the CIP focuses on three central questions: How does misinformation spread? How does information impact beliefs and actions? And how can researchers, educators, and policymakers prevent the transmission of misinformation in a non-partisan way?

Avoiding partisanship on a topic as central to democracy as the flow of information is taken very seriously by the CIP. “This is not a left or right issue,” stated CIP Director Jevin West. “This is an issue that transcends political boundaries.”

A recent research focus of the CIP has been misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. West and his colleagues have amassed a dataset of over a billion Tweets related to COVID-19, a resource he believes will be studied for decades to come. CIP principal investigator Kate Starbird is specifically looking into how a prolonged crisis, such as a pandemic, can lead to breakdowns in “collective sense-making,” especially when the issue becomes politicized.

When it comes to education, the CIP uses coursework, internships, capstone projects, and directed research seminars to teach students about issues at the intersection of information systems, human behavior, communication, and policy. The CIP also holds an annual MisinfoDay that invites high school students, teachers, and librarians to attend a workshop dedicated to learning how to identify and combat misinformation. MisinfoDay provides teachers with resources to educate students on misinformation and students with skills to help them become better information consumers.

The CIP also addresses policy issues related to the spread of misinformation by producing analyses of the current legal frameworks that govern domestic and international information flow, as well as available mechanisms for intervention. These analyses are informed by legal experts and the research conducted by the CIP.

The final aspect of the CIP’s project to shorten the cycle between research and implementation involves direct engagement of various kinds. Aside from working with teachers and librarians to educate students, the CIP collaborates with technologists, journalists, civil society representatives, and others through a Community Fellows program. These community members work alongside the CIP to develop misinformation interventions that can be scaled and pushed out to the community.

West believes that misinformation is “one of the most important problems of our time that we as a society need to solve,” and he is not alone. Despite being founded less than two years ago, the CIP and its research has already been discussed by The Seattle Times, The Verge, and The Washington Post.

For students concerned with the impact information technology is having on our democracy, the CIP encourages UW graduates and undergraduates to apply to take part in their research.

More information can be found at

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