On Thursday, December 5th, at 7pm, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dana Priest joined us on campus at a packed Hefter Center to give a talk about censorship and fake news. In her talk, “Disinformation & Democracy,” she covered topics including Russian troll farms and Facebook’s power in countries around the world. We know the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election, but she went into the details about what type of fake news and messages the Russians spread on the internet, especially Facebook. The main goal of the Russian trolls was to create feelings of voter apathy in order to lower turnout. They aimed to generate a feeling of distrust of the political process among African American in an effort to suppress the vote. There was a high concentration of disinformation about racial issues being spread in Maryland and Missouri. Priest believes this is because these were the sites of the Mike Brown and Freddie Gray protests The goal was to fan the fire of hostility that had already started on its own.
The main takeaway from this talk is that accurate information can be hard to find and verify in today’s society. This is troubling in a democracy that only works at maximum efficiency if everyone is able to form their own opinions based off of the truth. Priest believes information is a human right and compares censorship of information to global warming. Like global warming, censorship keeps getting worse and worse and there are still a lot of people that deny it is a big problem. With access to information, democracy can flourish. Dana Priest’s talk shows that social media sites like Facebook can be used for good purposes, like connecting with family and organizing political demonstrations, but we must be wary of people in power using them for more nefarious purposes like creating division and hostility to maintain their control over the public discourse.