How America could combat fake news and disinformation

November 19, 2020

Claims of election fraud have been debunked but repeated. Myths about COVID-19 safety precautions persist— even as a third wave of infections rolls through the country. Research shows that fake news is bad news for democracy — and in a pandemic, it may be a matter of life, illness or death. USC experts discuss the nation’s worsening fake news problem and offer tips on how social platforms, journalists and individuals could help rein it in.

Contact: Emily Gersema, or (213) 361-6730


Tips 1 & 2: Social platforms can put users on a media diet; let users rank content to elevate real news

“Misinformation is not a new phenomenon; it has been around since the ancient times. It is just recently that we are seeing its stronger and more devastating effects.

“Surprisingly, in a recent paper, we show that even if information was of good quality and unbiased, polarization naturally arises due to ‘information inundation,’ where agents (users) have access to a vast amount of information. Therefore, a simple tip to combat misinformation is for platforms to not censor content — which can have very adverse effects — and just control the amount of information that a user is exposed to at a time. This can be a limit in the size of the news feed or a random sampling of only a few articles per topic that are presented to users.

Social media companies could consider a voting system to elevate real news 

In our current work, we’re exploring whether ‘reputation’ scores can be adopted in online platforms where users rank information based on its quality. We show that if the platform does not intervene with its own independent fact-checking, these voting mechanisms can have the complete opposite effect. The only way that such approaches can work is when the platform fact-checks a subset of the content and as a result exposes users who rank without doing their own fact-checking while rewarding agents who rank information responsibly.”

Kimon Drakopoulos is an assistant professor at the USC Marshall School of Business with expertise in data science and network systems.



Tip 3: Newsrooms should conduct threat assessments on what to cover and debunk

All platforms need to set up viral ‘circuit breakers’ so they can immediately assess whether rapidly shared material is harmful to election integrity or public health. That should be the threshold for action, because anything more than that risks generating the attention-grabbing meta-debate about censorship and expression, and anything less than that could be damaging to democratic institutions.

“Editors, reporters and producers must think critically about whether coverage of, say, a polling glitch or even threats of violence will amplify the sense of chaos and trigger others who are primed to act. Not all news is newsworthy, and when the legitimacy of democratic institutions are stake, framing, context and careful curation are essential.”

Marc Ambinder is a longtime journalist for The Atlantic who is an adjunct professor with expertise on cybersecurity issues and research fellow at USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

Contact: or (202) 491-4304


Tip 4: Lies and fake news tend to stick with people, so repeat the truth

“Never repeat false information. Once people hear it, it is difficult to correct. If you, as a journalist, have to report on it, make the story about the lie itself: Start with the truth; explain that Person X spread false information and say why they may have done so if you can. Present the false information only after that, and not in vivid detail; repeat why it is false.”

Norbert Schwarz is a Provost Professor of Psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and USC Marshall School of Business. He co-authored a 2017 paper in Behavioral Science & Policy to help counter fake news that is entitled “Making the Truth Stick & the Myths Fade” and co-edited a book The Psychology of Fake News.



Tip 5: Think before you share; people are the super spreaders of fake news

“Most misinformation is spread by people — not by bots, foreign actors or troll accounts.

“Before sharing something on Twitter or Facebook, it’s crucial to assess the provenance, credibility and authority of the source of that news or information. Who published it? A well-established and credible person, or a shady account that maybe appears to post a lot of sensationalistic or divisive content? If there is a link in the post, where does the link point to? Is it a well-known news outlet or a maybe suspicious website?

“Also, who else is talking about this news? Have you seen a diverse set of individuals and organizations discussing this issue or does it appear to be from a niche group with unusual or divisive positions? Misinformation needs fertile ground to spread. If we all verify our sources and rely on trusted, authoritative news, the diffusion of incorrect or distorted information is greatly reduced.”

Emilio Ferrara is an expert on Twitter bots — automated accounts that largely spread fake news. He is an associate professor of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and associate professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Ferrara also is a research team leader at the USC Information Sciences Institute.



Tip 6: Be a conscious consumer of news

“Follow a diverse set of accounts for a varied information diet.”

Kristina Lerman is an expert on social networking issues, social computing and Artificial Intelligence.

She is a project leader at the USC Information Sciences Institute and a research associate professor in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Computer Science Department.

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