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The Real Impact of Fake News: The Rise of Political Misinformation—and How We Can Combat Its Influence

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation?

That was among the key questions considered at the recent Strategies for Combating Political Misinformation panel hosted by the Columbia University School of Professional Studies (SPS) Strategic Communication and Political Analytics graduate programs. The discussion centered on the varying factors that determine the influence of misinformation on beliefs, and what strategies can be used to combat it effectively.

Dr. Kristine Billmyer, program director of the M.S. in Strategic Communication, and Dr. Gregory Wawro, director and founder of the M.S. in Political Analytics program, welcomed attendees and introduced the panel’s moderator, Josie Cox, author of Women Money Power and an associate faculty member at SPS.

Jennifer Counter, vice president of cyber security solutions company Orbis Operations and an associate faculty member at SPS, shared a succinct distinction between misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is like a game of telephone among family members who try to relay information accurately, she said, but don’t necessarily get the facts entirely right. Disinformation, on the other hand, is the intentional dissemination of false information.

Cox asked panelists how concerned they are about the state of misinformation and disinformation, the power and influence it has in our lives and communities today, and where they see things going over the next few years.

Panelist Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media, and Communications specialization at Columbia University School of International Public Affairs (SIPA), noted that she is highly concerned, pointing to the spread of misinformation currently occurring in the Middle East. Yamil Ricardo Velez, assistant professor of Political Science at Columbia, shared that while he acknowledged Schiffrin’s concern, he harbors a level of optimism for our ability to limit the negative impact of misinformation, pointing out that professionals and academics are working on solutions to the problems presented by misinformation.

But the scope of the problem isn’t to be underestimated, countered panelist Bradley Honan, CEO and president of Honan Strategy Group. “There’s been disinformation as long as humans have been talking to each other,” Honan said. “Having so many different channels and platforms allows information now to move as never before. Disinformation is becoming more persuasive because there’s so much of it.”

Honan also pointed out that misinformation could wind up being the decisive issue of the 2024 presidential election. In America, there is no regulation when it comes to fact-checking and misinformation, and the fact-checking that does exist has an English language bias, which means that large groups of people who don’t speak the language aren’t able to access the highest quality information because it simply isn’t made available to them.

The panel also discussed the role that local news plays in small, underserved communities known as “news deserts.” While the role of trusted local journalists is critical in combating misinformation, sufficient funding is unfortunately not in place to help grow those smaller newsrooms. Schiffrin mentioned that these local news teams ought to be funded by major tech companies like Google or Meta who have been profiting off these publishers’ work for years without compensation.

In addition to a call for more regulation, the panelists agreed that media literacy is a critical solution to solving the misinformation problem. Schiffrin pointed out that New Jersey just passed bipartisan legislation establishing K-12 information literacy education to help students evaluate and understand the news they encounter—the first curriculum of its kind in the country.

Counter spoke to the potentially problematic nature of AI-generated content. “There’s been content pushed out on social media inflaming things,” she said. “It’s going to democratize disinformation even more than it already does. People will not know what to believe.”

However, generative AI’s impact isn’t necessarily all negative when it comes to misinformation. Panelist Yamil Velez shared that, in isolated instances, generative AI can increase access for minority groups, citing the example of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who used AI to communicate with non-English-speaking New Yorkers. However, both Velez and Counter added that even when used appropriately, content that uses AI should always be flagged.

The dissemination of misinformation is a problem that’s not going away any time soon, the panelists agreed, though they shared the hope that its impact could be limited through educational channels like media literacy—and insightful discussions such as this one.

About the Political Analytics Program

The Columbia University M.S. in Political Analytics program provides students quantitative skills in an explicitly political context, facilitating crosswalk with nontechnical professionals and decision-makers—and empowers students to become decision-makers themselves. The 36-point credit program is available part-time and full-time. Please complete this form more information.

About the Strategic Communication Program

The business world’s around-the-clock communications challenges are demanding a new level of strategic thinking. Columbia University’s Master of Science in Strategic Communication graduates emerge equipped with all the essential skills and tools for a successful career in a wide range of communication fields. Applications are open now for fall 2024 enrollment.