Jevin West: Preparing for elections requires research, policy and above all education

Dr Jevin West, Co-Founder of the Center for an Informed Public, gave the keynote speech in Faktabaari's 10-year anniversary forum. He believes that research, fact-checking, and education can help mitigate the spread of misinformation.

2024 is a year of elections for the world, said Dr. Jevin West on the 2nd April in Faktabaari’s 10 years’ anniversary forum in Helsinki. The forum was part of Faktabaari’s Immune 2 Infodemic -project.

He was invited to give the keynote speech in the Merkki museum.

“Election misinformation exists all across the world,” West said.

West and his colleagues at the University of Washington founded the Center for an Informed Public CIP in 2019 with a vision of combining research with front line work with journalists and fact checkers, and to emphasize education policy.

CIP researchers have published many scientific articles in misinformation and the mechanism how rumors spread online. West talked about a paper titled “Mobilizing Manufactured Reality”, where they studied the spread of early tweets during the 2020 US presidential elections.

“We studied how those narratives connect with each other, and we are coming up with models on how that is likely occurring in other settings and in future elections,” West said.

“Because ultimately, what we want to do is not just start from scratch every election. We want to try to understand them.”

CIP researchers want to see if they can come up with models that exist “within the rumor mill”. Not only in elections, but also in health issues, and other hot topics where rumors tend to spread quickly.

“One of the goals that we have in our research is trying to understand online behavior and how that interacts with our health behavior or our political behavior,” West said.

Election monitoring

For another paper, West and his colleagues created social media pseudo accounts that were following politicians from different political parties, similarly as Faktabaari and CheckFirst have done with the CrossOver Finland project.

“We wanted to see whether the algorithms pulled individuals into echo chambers,” West said. “And the conclusion here was that, yes, there was some echo chambers forming, but there were some nuances to that.”

At the moment, they are trying to audit these algorithms.

“But it’s very hard work because they’re constantly changing and it’s very difficult to get the data,” he said.

They have also been auditing Google’s search engine during elections.

Again, very similarly to the CrossOver project, West and his colleagues have placed virtual machines in different parts of the US, in order to understand how search engines may be delivering different kinds of content to different users.

Some politicians are on board with trying to give more access to researchers, and even Facebook has collaborated with some researchers, West said.

To get their research circulated more widely, CIP has regular meetings with journalists.

“During the upcoming US election, we will have weekly and sometimes bi-weekly meetings for journalists saying, here’s what we’re seeing in our research. And then they can go about reporting on it.”

With generative AI, the creation of misinformation is easier than before, and it is getting better and better. West mentioned a famous story of the Slovakian election, where a deepfake video of a candidate was released right before elections, and may have affected the outcome.

“This is not unique to Slovakia. It’s happening all over, and we’re obviously trying to prepare in the US for this.”

What is worrying is that the legislation concerning artificial intelligence and deepfakes is often not up to date. There are many gray areas – for example, in the US, campaigners for Ron DeSantis created a deepfake voice of Donald Trump saying something that Trump had written, but never said.

“And the question is, should the laws be employed on situations where someone doesn’t say it, but they write it? We don’t know,” West said.

Hope in education

Much of West’s time is spent in the darker corners of Internet, he said.

“We look across platforms, we study these dynamics because we hope to learn on how those things repeat themselves and try to come with ways of trying to mitigate the most awful types of spreading rumors.”

And there are also glimpses of hope.

Jevin West

“There’s three things that we can do,” West said.

There are some technological solutions, and some policy that can be advanced. But the most important solution comes from education.

“And that’s where I have the most hope in”, West said. “It’s a long play, but I think it’s the really the only true way to respond to this fast-changing environment.”

To help in educating the public, West and his colleagues have recently started a nonprofit called It is a nonpartisan effort to bring deepfake detection tools to the public and to anyone that wants to use them.

“And the reason why this is important is this can’t be just in the hands of one group or another. It has to be made available.”

In Finland, a similar organization is of course the 10-year-old Faktabaari, focusing on fact-checking and education.

Faktabaari's team with Jevin West

Faktabaari’s team with Jevin West, celebrating the 10 years of Faktabaari.

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