Conspiracy theories and disinformation aren’t new concepts, but according to experts this week at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, they do present more serious challenges to public discourse in today’s hyperconnected world.
“Our politics and our culture have been filled with this stuff for centuries,” ProPublica’s Andy Kroll said. “But the ability to have free tools that help you reach as many people as possible; those tools didn’t exist before this moment. To me that’s what makes this moment so much more different, and why we have to understand how these tools work, how they rewire the way we think, and how they affect the way we talk with our peers and fellow citizens.”
Kroll, who recently published his first book, “A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy,” was one of three panelists on hand to discuss “Digital Threats to Democracy” in front of a 200-person crowd in the Overby Auditorium on Wednesday night. It was the center’s opening event of the spring semester. University of Mississippi journalism dean Andrea Hickerson, Ph.D., and EdgeTheory co-founder Greg Griffith rounded out the panel, and Overby fellow R.J. Morgan, Ph.D, moderated.
The topic is certainly timely. According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans turn to Twitter for their news. But despite this popularity, or more likely because of it, social networks have also been used to promote fake news and propaganda, which has led to a widespread loss of faith in the media and other American institutions. Social media platforms were a hotbed of political voter fraud conspiracy theories during the 2020 presidential election, which ultimately led to the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Griffith’s company, EdgeTheory, is a Mississippi-based global technology firm with an emphasis in Artificial Intelligence-powered narrative data. Narrative AI can be used to gather and detect false narratives in online media stories, then track their proliferation.
“We have been asked if our technology will help spread truth,” Griffith said. “I think the difficult answer there is that we first have to know what you mean by truth. I sound all biblical, but we do love in a post-modern and post-truth kind of world.”
As a scholar, one of Hickerson’s main research focuses has been the rise of “deepfake” propaganda, which uses AI technology to manipulate video recordings of politicians, celebrities, etc. Hickerson is part of a team that has developed an online deepfake detection tool to help journalists verify that the information they’re sharing is real, but says it’s going to take a lot more buy-in from Big Tech to really combat the problem.
“It’s one thing for my little research team to try to tackle deepfakes, but I’m not Microsoft or Google,” Hickerson said. “They have a lot more resources, but they are not doing it. And so why aren’t they doing it? Probably because they’re worried they would be accountable for it.” The full panel discussion lasted about an hour and is available to watch here in its entirety.
Up next at the Overby Center: “Pot Goes Public,” a discussion of Mississippi’s medical marijuana rollout featuring State Health Officer Dan Edney. The program begins at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the Overby Auditorium. A generous reception and open bar will follow.