By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter


To Mike Caulfield, there’s a lot to be learned about the spread of misinformation from Clark County’s measles outbreak.

Like a disease, bad information has to start somewhere. There might be rumor or conjecture about why, but until someone dives in to study the issue, there’s no real way to know for sure. You can slow the spread in the meantime, but it takes knowing where and how it started to inoculate local communities from future outbreaks.

Enter the Center for an Informed Public, an initiative launched this month by the University of Washington and Washington State University. The program, funded by $5 million in seed money from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, will study and work to combat the spread of misinformation and disinformation. The Knight Foundation is investing $50 million into research exploring how technology is transforming democracy.

“If we care about common goals — things like safe communities, justice, equal opportunity — we have to care also about facts, truth and accuracy,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said at the center’s public launch on Dec. 3. “Misinformation can be weaponized. It has been weaponized to divide us and to weaken us.”

The center will bring together experts on technology, artificial intelligence, public policy and journalism to study, as Caulfield put it, “the epidemiology of misinformation.” Leaders say some of the most important work will happen in communities — including Vancouver — to tackle the issue at a local level.


At the formal announcement last week, center Director Jevin West pointed out the example of “deep fakes,” highly realistic videos that can trick viewers into believing they’re real, as a key area for research. Researchers involved in the program have also looked at how social media bots are used to sow political division.

“These disinformation campaigns are there to both misinform but also to add noise to the conversation and create bigger rifts,” West said.

The center’s long-term goal is to work with community leaders and organizations to determine what will best work on a local level. For example, it may mean working with school districts to develop curriculum focused on identifying reliable news sources, or with libraries to launch media literacy programs.

“I don’t see this as a one-size-fits-all answer,” said Bruce Pinkleton, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU. “It’s going to be important that we hear from people.”

The center will kick off a series of public forums across the state next year, including one in Vancouver sometime in the spring, to collect feedback and gauge how the issue is playing out locally.

West added that it isn’t good enough for two universities telling people what they need to do to combat misinformation. They need to talk with communities about how to address the issue.