Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy

Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy

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With democracies across the globe under assault, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic hosted Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy, a groundbreaking three-day event exploring the organized spread of disinformation and strategies to respond to it.

The conference, April 6 to 8, explored the roots and scope of the problem, the next-generation threats posed by new technological advances, and the tools and policies required to neutralize them. Panels also discussed the challenge presented when the term disinformation itself becomes fractious, and the tension between free expression and the need to combat wanton and willful disinformation aimed at eroding it.

To find additional details about participating speakers and our agenda, please visit disinfo2022.com.

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Wednesday, April 6

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04:00 PM EDT
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Welcome from University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos

Introduced by Zeenat Rahman, executive director of the Institute of Politics

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Remarks by Maria Ressa

Featuring a moderated discussion with Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor at The Atlantic

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Anne Applebaum in conversation with David Axelrod

Amid an increasingly polarized political environment, social media have enabled the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation. Tools that helped spawn pro-democracy movements around the world also have been expropriated and manipulated by reactionary forces and malign state actors to spur division, undermine trust, and erode democracies from within. Autocrats have seized on these new technologies to demonize their opponents, promote false narratives, and fan the flames of extreme nationalism. Disinformation, division, and incitement to violence have always been part of the geopolitical playbook. But what does it mean when they are turbocharged by technology?

Featuring: Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Agora Institute; David Axelrod, founding director of the Institute of Politics

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A keynote conversation with former President Barack Obama moderated by Jeffrey Goldberg

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07:00 PM EDT
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Day 1 programming concludes

Thursday, April 7

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10:00 AM EDT
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Welcome by Jeffrey Goldberg

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Politics as Usual or an Insidious Attack on Our Democracy?

The current political climate in the United States and other countries is so polarized that even the threat that mis-, mal-, and disinformation pose itself is open for debate. How can we tell the difference between everyday hyperbole, stretching the truth, and a coordinated effort to sow distrust in our democratic institutions? Who determines what falls into each category? How do our partisan views color the way we receive and process mis- or disinformation?

Featuring: Jonah Goldberg, editor in chief at The Dispatch; Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor at The Atlantic; Ben Smith, editor in chief of Semafor; David Axelrod, founding director of the Institute of Politics (moderator)

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What Happens When We Can’t Tell What’s Real?

For the past several years, computer scientists have demonstrated how rapid technological advances allow them to fabricate reality—creating convincing photographs of people who do not exist; synthetic videos in which politicians appear to say things they never said; and doctored photos that are indistinguishable from the real thing. All of these technologies are already being weaponized to chip away at public trust in democratic institutions. From cheap fakes to deep fakes, technical advances are about to further complicate our social and political problems.

Featuring: Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy; Meg Kelly, senior visual-forensics reporter at The Washington Post; Ellen Cushing, special projects editor at The Atlantic (moderator)

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How Powerful Are Algorithms Really?

The integrity workers at big tech platforms who have sounded the alarm about algorithmic informational environments often remind us that algorithms aren’t smart, but they are tremendously powerful. And because their inner workings are largely invisible to the public, the platforms that control them wield huge power with little to no accountability. At the same time, critics argue that concern about algorithmic influence is overblown. What is the true scope of the problem, and how should we approach solving it?

Featuring: Camille François, Columbia University; Karrie Karahalios, computer science professor at University of Urbana-Champaign; Gabriel Nicholas, researcher at Center for Democracy & Technology; Casey Newton, founder of Platformer News (moderator)

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How Media Platforms Shape Consumer Realities

How do mainstream news organizations discern disinformation from distortions, spin from propaganda, and liberties with language from outright lies? How do they communicate the difference, transparently, with news consumers, and give clarity to that sorting process? How can media companies establish trust and defend journalism against attacks of partisanship when engaged in calling balls and fouls—seeded decades ago and renewed with vigor in the modern era—and what role do those presenting the news play in preventing perceptions of bias and unfairness?

Featuring: Stephen Hayes, editor & CEO of The Dispatch; Brian Stelter, chief media correspondent for CNN; Lauren Williams, co-founder of Capital B; Jim Rutenberg, writer at large at The New York Times (moderator)

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01:45 PM EDT
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Lunch Break

02:45 PM EDT
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How Conspiracy Theories Capture the Mind

Conspiracy theories seem to be everywhere these days. Are people more susceptible to disinformation and conspiracy-laden bigotry, more bombarded by it, or are we merely being exposed to fringe worldviews more readily because of today’s informational environment? How can individuals help their friends and family members stay skeptical and informed, and how do we address the scourge of conspiracism—which has clear ties to real-world violence—at community- and society-wide levels?

Featuring: Diane Benscoter, founder, Own Your Brain; Jacquelyn Mason, Media Democracy Fund; Abbie Richards, TikTok-misinformation-and-extremism researcher; Ellen Cushing, special projects editor at The Atlantic (moderator)

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03:50 PM EDT
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Breakout: How Natural-Language Processing Will Change Propaganda

Machine learning is advancing faster than our informational ecosystem can adapt to it, and these developments pose acute threats to individuals and institutions targeted with propaganda and media manipulation. One understudied realm is natural-language processing. How will the world change when machines can write as clearly and logically as humans? How will this technology be used against us, and by whom? And how will it fundamentally reorder our species’ place in the world?

Featuring: Stephen Marche, author, The Next Civil War; Chenhao Tan, director of the Chicago Human + AI Lab and professor at University of Chicago; Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor at The Atlantic (moderator)

03:50 PM EDT
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Breakout: The Internet Is Rotting

The internet is in a perpetual state of decay, more ephemeral than people tend to realize. The fluidity of our informational environment poses problems from a disinformation/misinformation perspective, but it also poses epistemological ones. How should we organize knowledge in the internet age? How can we protect ourselves against those who will seek to rewrite history in this fluid environment? And how will scholars and historians look back on this time given how little information we’re successfully saving?

Featuring: Jason Scott, founder of textfiles.com; Jonathan Zittrain, professor at Harvard Law (virtually); Ellen Cushing, special projects editor at The Atlantic (moderator)

03:50 PM EDT
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Breakout: Disinformation and the Subversion of Elections

Since 2016, misinformation campaigns stemming from Russia, Iran, China and Romania—often based on a Soviet strategy seeded during the civil rights movement—were used to target American voters. These efforts show no signs of abatement.

The Russian Internet Research Agency, which was indicted in 2018 for attempts to manipulate the 2016 election, ran the majority of fake social media accounts. During the last 6 months of the 2020 presidential election, Facebook flagged 180 million posts emanating from foreign actors and trolls. Members of Congress recently wrote to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube flagging the use of social media to spread disinformation aimed at BIPOC voters in particular. Who is responsible—government or the private sector or both—in stemming the tide, and what is being done in preparation for the 2022 midterms.

Featuring: Christopher Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; Lauren Underwood, Democratic representative from Illinois (virtually); Barton Gellman, staff writer at The Atlantic (moderator)

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Defending Free Speech in the Mobile Internet Age

How did the debate over free speech in the United States get so warped? Big tech companies defend themselves—and their hands-off approach to taking responsibility for what happens on their own platforms—by arguing that they’re defending free speech. These same companies created an internet that is walled gardens, antithetical to the early visions of the open web. At the same time, social platforms operating at global scale are extremely efficient machines for spreading extremism and hate. And other countries have their own free-speech standards and battles. How can we defend and promote free speech in this complex and rapidly evolving informational environment?

Featuring: Geoffrey Stone,, professor at the University of Chicago Law School; Mary McCord, professor at Georgetown Law; Nabiha Syed, president of The Markup; Rebecca Rosen, senior editor at The Atlantic (moderator)

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06:00 PM EDT
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Day 2 programming concludes

Friday, April 8

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10:00 AM EDT
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Welcome by David Axelrod

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Targeted by Lies: How Disinformation Spurs Political Violence

In recent years, the proliferation of targeted disinformation has led an alarming number of Americans to lose faith in political institutions and the democratic process. This phenomenon has led to threats and, in the most tragic cases, deadly political violence such as the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Amid renewed attention to the problem of domestic extremism and a congressional investigation of the insurrection, this session considers how we got here, and what can be done to combat the spread of disinformation and political violence.

Featuring: Christopher Krebs, former director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; Kathleen Belew, professor at University of Chicago; Adam Kinzinger, Republican representative from Illinois; Barton Gellman, The Atlantic (moderator)

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Taming the Wild, Wild Web

The internet remains one of the most ungoverned spheres on Earth. But for internet companies, it’s clear that the age of self-regulation has not always lived up to early dreams of the internet that promised distributed power, freedom, and expression. As governments around the world contemplate how to best approach online regulation, disinformation is among the toughest problems they face. On top of concerns about free expression, the ongoing threat disinformation poses to sitting politicians and the democratic processes complicates these efforts: How should governments grapple with these issues? What is possible in the U.S., and how have peer nations approached these threats?

Featuring: Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts and co-chair of the Future of Tech Commission; Amy Klobuchar, Democratic senator from Minnesota; Kara Swisher, The New York Times (moderator)

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Countering Disinformation’s Threat to National Security

Terrorist groups have long used social media to spread propaganda, demonize enemies, recruit trainees, and train them in terror techniques. Disinformation is now a new arrow in the quiver of all bad actors, used to disrupt competing nations and weaponize knowledge to threaten citizens and government. How extensive is the threat, and what is its composition? With no federal agency in the United States singularly focused on disinformation, how can the United States and other nations protect themselves?

Featuring: Former U.S. Representative Will Hurd; Elissa Slotkin, Democratic representative from Michigan; Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief, The Atlantic (moderator)

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Imagining a Better Social Media

The rules and norms of social-media platforms are determined by a few individuals. Companies profit from selling user information to governments, other companies, and nongovernment organizations with little to no monitoring of how users are then targeted with information. What would a less polarized social-media platform look like? And how can companies be encouraged to do more to help humanity and democracies across the globe?

Featuring: Frances Haugen, advocate for accountability & transparency in social media; Cecilia Kang, author, An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination; Erin Simpson, director of technology policy at Center for American Progress; Ethan Zuckerman, University of Massachusetts at Amherst; Charlie Warzel, contributing writer at The Atlantic (moderator)

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Closing Remarks by David Axelrod & Jeffrey Goldberg

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01:40 PM EDT
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Day 3 programming concludes

Event Details

Chicago, IL or Virtual

The David Rubenstein Forum on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus

April 6–8, 2022

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