Building Reputation to Dismantle Misinformation

Nick Monk: Smiling man with brown hair and tailored blue jacket.
Nick Monk, CTT Director

The end of the semester is upon us, and we should take a moment to congratulate ourselves on having made it through another COVID-affected semester. I believe that we can look forward to some kind of "normality" as vaccines become more widely available, and the country opens up more fully to travel. Reflecting on the COVID-19 crisis reminds me of the strong currents of information and misinformation that flowed through the multifarious channels of communication presently available to us. To this end, I wanted to use this month’s Director’s Communications to focus on the work of Michael Caulfield. Caulfield is director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, and coordinator of the Digital Polarization Initiative.

Caulfield argues that there is a widespread belief that one of the principal problems that affect our students is that they are gullible. The opposite is the truth, however, according to Caulfield, and it is cynicism that is afflicting our students. The problem is that such cynicism is so widespread and broad-based that not only the most unlikely and improbable stories in the media are regarded with suspicion by students, so are the most carefully researched, scientifically based, and truthful ones. In a society in which nothing is believed, power fills the void vacated by truth, and the path to authoritarianism is opened.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Caulfield’s approach is his argument that critical thinking cannot save us. For me, a commitment to critical thinking has been a foundational element as a teacher, researcher, and administrator since my days as an undergraduate. To hear it challenged strikes a powerfully dissonant note, but Caulfield’s case is a powerful one. The argument is that because critical thinking requires deep attention, and the aim of disinformation is to capture attention, students become vulnerable to engagement with such material, distracting them from areas that contain more truthful and accurate information: "whenever you give your attention to a bad actor, you allow them to steal your attention from better treatments of an issue, and give them the opportunity to warp your perspective."

Related to this is Caulfield’s argument that the crisis we face is not one of truth or facts but one of reputation. He challenges the assumption that if we can only confront lies with the truth then misinformation can be countered effectively: "today, expertise is undervalued and everyone is seen as insurmountably biased. The web makes things worse, providing an illusion of knowledge to the non-expert, and counterfeit reputation to the con artist. In such a world, the only markers of reputation left are your stated values and your perceived commitment to them." What we need to do, according to Caulfield, is to build into our curriculums ways to help students to study and evaluate reputation.

As we enter the summer it may be worth reflecting more on the kind of radical approach Caulfield advocates. Too often it can feel like we are in an impossible position as we try to make a stand in universities against the tide of lies and misinformation that can seem to be drowning and suffocating us. Maybe it’s time to re-think our assumptions and to shift from positions that have served us well but may no longer be fit for purpose.

Thank you for reading this piece, and from all, at the CTT we wish you the best possible summer.

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