Misinformation in the World Today, Part 2

Faculty Spotlight: Professor Emeritus Thomas J. Froehlich Ph.D. Warns About Misinformation

Thomas J. Froehlich, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the School of Information at Kent State University. He has published extensively about ethical considerations in information professions. Dr. Froehlich teaches and publishes extensively on misinformation in the public sphere, including a chapter in a recent collection, Navigating Fake News, Alternative Facts, and Misinformation in a Post-Truth World. He spoke with us regarding disinformation in the 21st century. This is the second part of our two-part interview. You can read part one here.


Why are there no apparent public punishments or negative consequences visited on spreaders of disinformation?

Primarily it is typically claimed that any such approaches would attack freedom of speech. Mark Zuckerberg, in a speech at Georgetown University, argued that Facebook should be unfettered in intellectual freedom, including political advertisements of outright lies. The view is that the marketplace will work it out – the lies will be discovered, eventually rejected or ignored. These arguments claim to be based on the First Amendment. 

Author and Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, Yochai Benkler counters that this misinterprets the amendment, which is limited to government involvement in speech and does not apply to private speech or private parties. Meanwhile, even with this theory, untruths are not sorting themselves out in the (dis)information marketplace.   

How can we protect ourselves from disinformation and how can we protect others?

To protect ourselves, we have to become critical thinkers, something easily said but difficult to achieve. We have to master major lessons in:

  1. Information literacy: the set of skills and competencies of information seekers to critically find, retrieve, evaluate and use information suitable to their information-seeking objectives;
  2. Media literacy: the set of critical skills and competencies for media users or creators to be able to retrieve, analyze, evaluate, generate and interpret all forms of messages, as well as understanding how messages are constructed, how they are variously experienced, how they have embedded points of view, and what the intentions of what their creators were, whether profit, power or some other purpose; and
  3. Digital literacy: a combination information and media literacy focusing on its occurrence in digital media.

The problem is that those in a closed propaganda loop are reinforced by false cognitive authorities (ones who cannot ground their assertions in reason, facts, evidence and logic). So, these approaches are only useful for those willing to grow and learn.

A study a few years ago suggested that correcting someone who held false information they had received through disinformation only made them cling more tightly to that false information? How do we combat that?

I am not sure we can. Many people who cling to false information live in a propaganda feedback loop. Anything that threatens that loop threatens them. They have become trained to become quickly angered when there are threats to their filter bubble. Even cult deprogramming is not successful, because of all the like-minded cognitive authorities who make it easy to return to and reinforce old habits of belief. There are rare exceptions.

What is the greatest threat to the future from the perpetuation of disinformation?

Before the internet, people had a much more difficult time aggregating in groups to form hate speech collectives. Physical proximity tended to be a constraint. With the advent of the internet and social media groups, it is easier for persons with radical ideas to find like-minded individuals, creating a forum with a loud voice, that in turn can convince others to join their cause.

We are engaged in a national and international war of disinformation against truth, science, rationality and humanism against power, greed, corruption, self-righteousness, intolerance, etc. We are facing nothing less than the dissolution of American democracy and fragile democracies throughout the world.


Thomas J. Froehlich, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the School of Information (iSchool) at Kent State University. The iSchool offers the only American Library Association accredited Library and Information Science program in the state of Ohio. As part of the College of Communication and Information (CCI), the iSchool offers classes in information literacy to learn the history of this subject as well as help librarians and school media specialists develop their information literacy programs. At the undergraduate level in our other schools, CCI offers media, design and information literacy courses that can help students develop their ability to discern information from misinformation and how it is used. 

POSTED: Wednesday, May 13, 2020 12:08 PM
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022 11:40 AM