Course Correct: A Weapon to Battle Misinformation Online
“It's such a big challenge to work on solutions to a problem that you know you will never fix but will only make better,” says Emily Vraga. The problem that Vraga is referring to is misinformation online.
Misinformation has become a burning issue and not without good reason. The constant barrage of fake news claims has left people wondering: how do you know what is true and what isn’t? For example, the circulation of misleading health information during the pandemic caused many to reject vaccines and try home remedies instead. It is becoming harder to trust sources, and the people taking the brunt of this skepticism are journalists.
To help journalists combat this problem, Vraga, holder of the Don R. and Carole J. Larson Endowed Professorship at the University of Minnesota, is working with a team of diverse researchers across the United States to create a tool for journalists that can help identify and correct misinformation online.
Building, Observing, Correcting
Early in 2022, a team of researchers invited Vraga, associate professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication, to join them in developing a precision tool known as Course Correct. This tool was already in its preliminary stages of development in the past two years under “Phase I” of the research. Vraga was brought in specifically for her expertise in observed correction.
“Observed correction is the idea that when you're correcting somebody in a public space, there are two audiences for the correction—the person sharing the misinformation and the secondary audience, i.e., the people who aren't involved in the conversation but are seeing the person share misinformation on social media,” says Vraga.
According to Vraga, observed correction tells us that if the secondary audience only sees the misinformation without the correction, then they may be left misinformed. In contrast, if they see the misinformation along with corrections made by people online, then there is a greater chance of the audience not believing the incorrect fact.
In this project, Vraga’s work primarily involves translating her prior research on observed correction into the real world of journalism. As part of the interventions team, her duty is to collaborate with colleagues and come up with the best, nuanced strategies that journalists can use to correct misinformation.
When asked about the biggest hiccups in this kind of work, Vraga says “I think the biggest challenge always is making sure that what we're doing is usable, and that [Course Correct] can actually be integrated into journalists’ tight timeframes and their routines.”
The collaboration between academics and journalists in this project is what makes this research so unique, Vraga notes. She greatly values the diverse team of researchers she gets to work with, “I think the product will be much richer because it is an interdisciplinary team of academics from a lot of different backgrounds.”
Phase II: Developing Course Correct
Phase I of the research mostly involved laying the groundwork for the project: having numerous conversations with journalists and asking about their needs when it came to dealing with misinformation.
The research team identified two things that journalists said they needed. “One, they need to better identify the misinformation that's spreading to get on top of the myths that are out there and be able to create the right content. And then two, they need to know how to best respond when sharing this information.”
Phase I came to an end earlier in 2022, and their hard work bore fruit when they were awarded a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator to continue into Phase II. This second phase will involve actually developing the toolkit so that journalists can test it in the newsrooms and see if the problems they discussed with the team during Phase I can be overcome.
Course Correct will take the shape of a website that journalists can refer to for identifying misinformation. This site will also allow journalists to test different strategies for information correction. Additionally, the toolkit may provide monthly newsletters with updated strategies and responses to questions that journalists are asking about the tool.
“We want an iterative process to continue so that we can improve the kinds of corrections journalists can offer,” comments Vraga.
The work Vraga and her colleagues are doing is not only relevant for journalists, but also the public. What should we do when we hear something outrageously false?
Vraga’s answer is simple: “React.”
This response is actually a clever acronym that Vraga and her colleagues came up with while working on a book they will soon publish.
R stands for repetition—repeating valid information or facts from multiple credible sources. E stands for showing empathy, and A stands for offering an alternative explanation. “Don't just say what you said is false. If you do that, people might remember the fact and forget that it's false. But if you tell them what's true, it replaces the falsehood in their memory,” explains Vraga.
C represents credibility and referring to expert, trustworthy sources to back your argument. Vraga advises us to “Think about your audience. Who do they think is a trusted source?” And lastly, T stands for being timely. The quicker the misinformation is corrected, the better.
“So if you see misinformation,”says Vraga, “you should react.”
How to R-E-A-C-T
R: Repeat the facts to help them stick in memory
E: Empathy for the person
A: Alternative explanation. Tell people what is true to replace the falsehood in their memory
C: Cite credible, expert, and trustworthy sources
T: Timely responses to misinformation help prevent its spread
This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA
The REACT approach to correcting misinformation will be included in the following publication:
Vraga, E. K., Ecker, U. K. H., Žeželj, I., Lazić, A., & Azlan, A. A. (forthcoming). To Debunk or Not Debunk? Correcting (Mis)information. In T. Purnat & B. Yau (Eds.) Managing infodemics in the 21st century – Addressing new challenges in the information ecosystem. Springer Nature.