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Interview: Åsa Wikforss on disinformation, COVID-19, and counteracting polarization

A few weeks after she took part in 6 Degrees Berlin 2020, the 6 Degrees team sat down with Åsa Wikforss to talk more about dis- and misinformation in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, its impact on inclusion, and how we can collectively counter false narratives and polarization.

Wikforss is a Swedish professor of philosophy who does research at the intersection of philosophy of mind, language, and epistemology. With the publication of her popular book, Alternative Facts: On Knowledge and its Enemies (not yet released in English), she has become a leading public defender of reason and truth against enemies of knowledge. In 2019, she was awarded a large interdisciplinary research program, Knowledge Resistance: Causes, Consequences and Cures, funded by the Swedish Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

6 Degrees: What do you think is a key misunderstanding in the way we talk about or define disinformation?
ÅW: Well, first to distinguish between dis- and mis information. Usually disinformation is more harmful because it has a propaganda function to it, it’s targeted — it’s meant to have political effects, and manipulate emotion in a way that misinformation doesn’t. Because disinformation is intentional, unlike misinformation, and it’s designed to foster certain beliefs, it’s typically more harmful.

Certainly when it comes to immigration, the political purpose is quite clear: to create a split between “them” and “us”, and drive that kind of nationalistic message forward.

The other thing about disinformation that is worth paying attention to is that disinformation need not mean that things that are said are false. If we define disinformation simply as information that’s designed to cause false beliefs — which I think is a good definition — then you can disinform by saying true things. You can make a selection of things that fit your narrative, and you exclude all the others. When it comes to immigration in Sweden, for example, there’s been a very concerted effort to create a false narrative. As soon as there’s something bad that happens that relates to immigration, they trumpet it out over and over again. They use gang violence — which is a societal problem in Sweden — and put a lot of focus on the role of [asylum seekers] to paint a picture of Sweden on the verge of collapse.

They pick their facts really carefully, then say things that are actually true, but the overarching message is false. That works quite well. But it’s trickier than something where you explicitly say what’s false.

How do you fact check things like this that aren’t false?
That’s exactly why this type of disinformation is so much more dangerous — you can’t just stamp it false. The answer to that kind of disinformation is good journalism. You fill in the missing facts, you provide the complexity and nuance that is missing to give the full picture. The problem is that that requires serious journalism that no one has time or money for anymore. It also isn’t as exciting; it’s hard to get lots of clicks doing that kind of journalism. This is a dangerous type of disinformation precisely because it’s hard to fact check, and because as human beings we love narrative, we love stories. So we get sucked into it.

Does that attraction to narrative connect to our cognitive biases? How does that cause us to fall for or spread misinformation?
You can see the link between narratives and confirmation bias, for example. If you’re caught in this narrative that Sweden is about to collapse because of immigration, you will be inclined to believe false statements that fit that narrative — fake news about immigrants will fit nicely with that, confirming the picture you already have. Moreover, you’ll be very observant of bad things that have to do with immigration that you might not have seen otherwise. You’re on the lookout for evidence that confirms this narrative you’ve already accepted. Narrative provides a structure for your experiences and the information that comes to you and shapes it in a way that interacts with our biases.

Do you think becoming more aware of our cognitive biases helps us counteract that?
If you think of confirmation bias it’s an interesting one. This bias is an unconscious psychological mechanism that we don’t have all that much power over. Everyone has it. Researchers have it; they want to confirm their theory. So why does research work? It works because of the institution. The institution is set up so that we examine each other, we question each other. It’s set up to counteract biases and error. So, it’s the social dimension of properly set-up institutions that allow for critical reasoning in a group that makes us overcome the biases. We can counteract the biases we have in a group.

That speaks to the importance of institutions, and their responsibility.
Institutions are key to democratic society, but also key to science. It’s key to all the things that we value, because as individuals, we’re pretty lost! Even if we’re super smart and diligent. If you lock up a super smart scientist, they’ll come up with some crazy theories, because there’s not enough feedback from other people.

So, what are some of the strategies that institutions can adopt to counter dis- or misinformation?
It’s not as simple as just going out and telling people how things are. We should instead go out and talk about the institution, and how it works.

In general, people don’t know how institutions work, and how they come to conclusions. In science, truth wins out over time. We have theories, we make mistakes, but things tend to correct themselves, because we have the institution. I think the same is true for journalism. What’s the difference between a serious journalistic institution and a propaganda platform, other than intentions? It’s how they work. How they have fact checkers, editors, internal review. They should make clear how they work to explain why they should be trusted.

What you’re talking about is transparency. Would that have the same effect in government and civil society?
I think transparency is key there as well. If we look at COVID-19, every government has different ways of doing things. In Sweden, we have politicians and an expert health authority. Politicians cannot make a decision that is not recommended by the health authority. They can’t decide to close all the schools until the health authority says so. That’s a kind of transparency that made me trust political decisions much more. So one could think that transparency, when it comes to political institutions, could have a similar function. If you want to build trust then that’s exactly the thing to do.

What about individual action to counter mis- and disinformation? Especially in the context of COVID-19.
When it comes to this kind of thing, go to the very established sources, where there is an institution backing up the information that is coming out. Don’t look up “Paul in Wherever” and his platform, or whatever you manage to find. With COVID, all the world’s scientists are working on it. And when there is real news, it will be known. Stick to the serious and established sources, and accept uncertainty.. Don’t trade uncertainty for some certainty in what’s false.

Do you see the spread of mis- and disinformation as being a threat to civil society and civic participation?
Sure. That’s its goal much of the time. There’s a certain type of political propaganda where the goal is to set one group against another. That’s what the Russians are doing in Sweden, and also in the U.S. They want to maximize polarization. They find these wedge issues where there’s potential for polarization, like immigration, and drive disinformation in such a way that one side perceives the other side as ugly or crazy. That’s one thing that disinformation has succeeded in: giving a skewed and horrible picture of the other side. And, of course, that will affect civil society. It comes out on social media, but it can’t be contained there. It has effects in real life, too.

In that context then, how do we balance the need to correct misinformation and misunderstandings with the need to bring people together through shared values to reduce polarization?
It depends on the context. But in society we need to address it. We know this from research on feminism and microaggression, if you let it pass in public, you’re condoning it. So it’s not really an option. The challenge then is how do you respond to it without putting the other person so much on the defense that it will just backfire. If you look at the research on fact resistance, it’s important to remember that it’s about emotion, not an information deficit. A similar thing holds for hateful comments, racial slurs, or things like that. In the public context one needs to speak up, but do it in such a way that the other person doesn’t feel threatened or shamed, because that’s not going to help either. And that’s a tricky balance!

And there’s the question of what you do online. If you should call it out, or if it’s “feeding the trolls”.
It’s a harder one online — it can be feeding the trolls. It also depends on the context, but can often not have the effect that you would like, that this person and all his friends will change their minds. That’s not going to happen.

One thing is Mina Dennert and the #iamhere movement. She’s lined up all of these people on Facebook who go in and, instead of trying to put down the hateful people, support the person who is subjected to hate. That might be the most efficient way to get the hateful people to stop, too. Make them think, “is this really the side I want to be on?” It works really well, and it’s very moving to see.

And in real life one can do something similar. “We’re here, and we’re not going to let this pass.”
It will be interesting to see after COVID-19, maybe this will counteract polarization. In Sweden, I can already feel it a bit, people coming together. I just saw some statistics now that the Swedish Nationalist Populist Party — a fascist party, basically — they’ve been as big as the Social Democrats lately, but in the last week their support has gone down and the Social Democrats have gone up.

You can feel there’s a move towards the feeling of “us” again. We must come together and help each other. So maybe this kind of a crisis will counteract polarization.

For more on misinformation, disinformation, and countering false narratives, check out the ICC’s Citizen Resilience Project.