Wisconsin Watch is joining a nationwide project led by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers that aims to protect democracy by limiting the spread and impact of misinformation.
With a newly announced $5 million award from the National Science Foundation’s Convergence Accelerator program, researchers will continue development of Course Correct, a tool designed at the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication to help journalists identify and combat misinformation online.
Wisconsin Watch, the news outlet of the nonpartisan and nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and several other news organizations, are being provided funding to help researchers determine how well Course Correct works in real-world situations.
Wisconsin Watch plans to use the funding to hire a reporter in early 2023 focusing on misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is generally defined as false information that is spread without the intent of deceiving people, while disinformation is deliberately intended to deceive.
Falsehoods around COVID-19, contact tracing, the 2020 election and alleged voter fraud have led public officials and thousands of Wisconsinites to take actions that put themselves, others and democracy at risk. More than a million Americans have died of COVID-19, yet one-third of Wisconsinites have not been fully vaccinated. And democracy hangs in the balance as some candidates for office in Wisconsin continue to deny that 81 million Americans — including a majority of Wisconsin voters — elected Joe Biden as president.
A recent Knight Foundation report found 74% of Americans are very concerned about the spread of misinformation on the internet, including strong majorities of both Democrats (84%) and Republicans (65%).
Using NSF funding, the UW-Madison-led group developed the initial iteration of Course Correct in 2021. The tool helps journalists identify trending misinformation on social media, strategically correct false claims and test the effectiveness of corrections in real time.
The next phase of the project will roll the tool out to a wider audience using media partners Wisconsin Watch, the Capital Times in Madison, the fact-checking site Snopes and the International Fact Checking Network.
“In Phase I, we developed our misinformation detection system and conducted promising preliminary tests of a method to correct misinformation within the networks it is spreading,” said Mike Wagner, a professor in the journalism school and principal investigator on the project. “Now, we will partner with journalists at the local, state and national levels to see how well Course Correct works in real world settings.”
Andy Hall, executive director and co-founder of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, said the Center’s role in the project aligns with its mission, which is “to increase the quality, quantity and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy.”
To better protect democracy from the corrosive effects of misinformation, Hall said, journalists need methods of intercepting false materials earlier, before they mislead huge numbers of people.
“We look forward to getting started on this difficult, but critical work,” Hall said. He noted that results of the project will be shared freely, and that Wisconsin Watch, as always, will maintain independence over its journalism. The NSF funding is expected to total about $166,000 over 18 months.
In addition to Wagner, other researchers at UW-Madison involved in Course Correct include Professor Dhavan Shah, Assistant Professor Sijia Yang and William Sethares, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. They will work with collaborators from other institutions including Georgetown University, Georgia Tech, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University.
The team’s plan for Phase II of the project is to complete the scalable misinformation detection system and identify best practices for misinformation correction. Then, they will train journalists on Course Correct and conduct randomized control trials to measure the tool’s value.
“This project is unique in adopting a convergence accelerator approach where we engage with the journalistic and fact-checking communities from the beginning and throughout the system design and testing phases,” UW-Madison Assistant Professor Sijia Yang said.
“We hope to build a system that would empower those working at the frontline fighting mis- and disinformation with real-time signals to identify emerging misinformation, rapid-response A/B testing capacities and evidence-based strategies for effective correction. I am so excited to work with a dream team to address this pressing societal challenge.”
About the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit with offices at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and in Milwaukee at Marquette University. It was launched in 2009.
Its mission is to increase the quality, quantity and understanding of investigative journalism to foster an informed citizenry and strengthen democracy. Its guiding values: Protect the vulnerable. Expose wrongdoing. Explore solutions.
The multimedia journalism of Wisconsin Watch, the Center’s news outlet, digs into undercovered issues, documents inequitable and failing systems, puts findings into regional and national contexts and explores potential solutions. We aim to spark impact that improves people’s lives and holds power to account.
The Center embraces diversity and inclusiveness in its journalism, training activities, hiring practices and workplace operations. The Center recognizes that its mission and society in general are strengthened by respecting individuals’ cultural traditions, beliefs and viewpoints. We further acknowledge that for journalism, and our democracy, to attain their highest potential, a robust supply of reliable information about key issues must be accessible to all.
Our staff trains diverse groups of current and future investigative journalists and entrepreneurs through workshops, internships and fellowships, mentoring and collaborations with journalism classes and news organizations. And we share information about journalistic practices, ethics and impact with the public.
Wisconsin Watch’s reports are published at WisconsinWatch.org, and content is made available at no charge to the public and to news organizations through partners such as Apple News, Microsoft Start and our own distribution system. To sign up for our newsletters, please click here.
In 2021, Wisconsin Watch produced 74 stories that were published or cited by more than 360 news outlets in Wisconsin and 33 states, Washington D.C., and 13 countries, reaching an estimated audience of more than 60 million. Wisconsin Watch has won dozens of national, regional and state awards.
The Center is primarily funded through grants from foundations and donations from individuals and corporations. Additional revenue is obtained through sponsorships of its events and activities, and from earned income — payments for providing services such as fact-checking, collaborating with students or producing investigative journalism projects.
More than 1,200 individuals, foundations, news organizations and other groups have contributed financially to the Center since 2009. We post our annual reports, tax returns and audited financials on our website.As a matter of policy, funders exercise no control over the Center’s editorial decisions, and all funders are publicly identified. To donate, please click here.