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Here’s how a Boise State Disinfo Squad is pushing back against a pack of lies

The Disinfo Squad was formed in 2022.
Albertsons Library
The Disinfo Squad was formed in 2022.

Disinformation (noun): false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. While accurate, Merriam-Webster may want to update its definition, in that the “influence” or “obscure” may not reflect the urgency of the risk.

“Disinformation online is a major aspect of most extremist ... domestic terrorism organizations,” said Elizabeth Ramsey, associate professor and librarian at Boise State University. “It's used to recruit, and it's used to incite.”

Ramsey’s scholarship traditionally focuses on how libraries foster the connections and skills that contribute to academic success. But of late, she has helped to develop and sustain a so-called “Disinfo Squad.”

Ramsey visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about what is now, a never-ending pushback against disinformation.

“Who would ever think that a library would be involved in a Homeland Security initiative? But it's related to domestic terrorism.”
Elizabeth Ramsey

Read the transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. We're going to spend some time this morning with Elizabeth Ramsey, associate professor and librarian at Boise State's Albertson's library. There is much to talk about in the world of libraries, and in particular, the scholarship that she and her colleagues have championed to push back on disinformation. So, let's say good morning to Professor Ramsey.

ELIZABETH RAMSEY: Hi, George. Thanks for having me.

PRENTICE: Tell me what…. I want to make sure I get this right….it's a squat.

RAMSEY: It's the Disinfo Squad.

PRENTICE: The Disinfo Squad? What is that?

RAMSEY: That's one of our one of our grant funded projects that we worked on from 2022 to 2023. The grant was awarded by the Department of Homeland Security. Who would ever think that a library would be involved in a Homeland Security initiative? Right. But it's related to domestic terrorism.

PRENTICE: And indeed, disinformation is a threat.

RAMSEY: Absolutely. Disinformation online is a major aspect of most extremist….domestic terrorism organizations, it's used to recruit and it's used to incite to violent, violent action. And it's that violent action or the threat of violent action that allows the federal government to take some action.

PRENTICE: We were talking for just a few minutes before we went on air about something… I want to make sure I heard this right….it’s lateral…..

RAMSEY: Lateral reading. That is a fact checking skill. It was developed at what used to be the Stanford History and Education Group. They tried out this idea of acting more like a fact checker, and figuring out the networks behind the information you're looking at to figure out the perspectives that you're being served. And that's really important these days, because information is rarely all true or all false. Yeah, humans make mistakes, but also there are some malicious intent behind there. On the other, on the evil side of the of the problem. S,o we have to be able to see that.

PRENTICE: I wonder... What year is not an election year? But can I assume in a high profile election year, this tends to peak…right?

RAMSEY: Absolutely. And we kind of saw that in 2016 with the QAnon problem there. Absolutely disinformed and believe in a conspiracy theory. Yeah. That would that we kind of saw a big example of domestic terrorism.

PRENTICE: To be clear, you are not telling people or steering people toward one source or another. You are helping us with tools to identify disinformation and to push back the murkiness.

RAMSEY: Yes, yes. And even beyond this lateral reading idea, which is effective. But it takes time and it takes skill. We must become aware of our own biases and how they work against us in how we interact with online information. It's a big bundle of them from algorithmic biases, the way information is served to us, to our own thinking, our cognitive biases, to social biases. We tend to believe information from people in our in groups over information from experts.

PRENTICE: Who is on your squad… or who has been on your squad. Who are we talking about? Colleagues? Fellow librarians? Undergrads?

RAMSEY: Yes, because we were really focused o middle school through college age. And so, we got them trained up. Then they were deployed in the community as so.

PRENTICE: So let me pause you there. Middle school? How do you get in front of middle schoolers and their parents?

RAMSEY: Well,  that was being taken care of by the other part of the grant, which was developing an alternate reality game. So at the end of that game play, folks were going to be it was going to be recommended to. If you need more information about this, go to the disinfo squad. Wow. But we kind of developed independently of that so that we could for example, I went to Timberline High and talked to students there. I've talked to some professional organizations because we all need help in navigating this

PRENTICE: Can I assume that young adults may be hungrier for this and to learn about this a lot quicker than, quite frankly, people my age who…..well, our stubbornness… we've dug in our heels pretty deep with our biases.

RAMSEY: Sure. But what works against younger folks is an assumption on the part of many people that they're digital natives and they can navigate, but they can't. And that involves more, um, the way they interact with information online, which is quite shallow. They scroll and swipe and accept first search results very quickly when we need to engage with information online much more deliberately to take our times. And when something incites a strong emotion to consider that an alarm bell, that maybe we're being manipulated.

PRENTICE: That sounds difficult for a formative brain.

RAMSEY: Yeah, yeah. But we kind of break it down. We did social media posts on the library's Facebook and Instagram accounts and use the hashtag #DisinfoSquad. We have a web page that's freely available to anybody that wants to check it out. It's the disinformation debunking station.

PRENTICE: And so what if I go there, what's on that website?

RAMSEY: We've got three tabs that are divided into. What are we talking about? What is this issue? Right. Um, why do we fall for it? And what can we do about it? It's those just three distinct pages that offer tools. And it's not just readings; it's videos. It's games. There's lots of research out there that's trying to help folks be a little less vulnerable to.

PRENTICE: I assume that with technology, there are pluses and minuses to the ever-changing technology landscape.

RAMSEY: AIi is improving all the time. And so we used to do some image identification. How can you tell when an image is fake? And there were cues like wonky teeth or glasses or hair. But that's not so true these days. So, we recommend folks do a little if you're on Google Chrome, do a little right click, or there's also tools on your phone where you can look and see where did this image first show up and get some sense of where it came from? Because even more than computer generated images and video, we're seeing misused ones, images that are taking taken from another event to prove a point that's not related to that event.

PRENTICE: I want to talk about what you do for a living for a second, because I'd be remiss if I didn't ask if you ever thought you'd see the day when libraries or librarians would be in the crosshairs of political conversations.

RAMSEY: No, no, not really, because I think anybody that has spent much time in a library realizes that we're dedicated to the common good. And that's what my research is all about. It's about helping us be better informed to make decisions that don't work against us or our families or our communities. That's what that's what I'm hoping to do.

PRENTICE: I'm wondering about the next generation of librarians, and I'm hoping that they still see it as an incredibly noble calling, and that the current political times don't scare them off. I'm assuming that you do this because you love this. You are professionals, but there is a passion here, right?

RAMSEY: Absolutely. People in libraries want to make a difference, a positive difference. And that's what we hear over and over. Why are you a librarian? That's kind of fundamental to the thinking of why people get involved.

PRENTICE: Before we go, I want you to remind me, for undergrads at Boise State, there is a micro course. Tell me what this is.

RAMSY: It's the Research and Critical Inquiry micro course and all. Pretty much all undergrads have to complete it as part of their university foundations courses required courses. And it not only takes them through videos that connect information literacy and their and potential professional lives, but it also gets them familiar with the library and familiar with this lateral reading skill.

PRENTICE: “Lateral Reading is my new phrase of 2024. So, what a great opportunity. And again, this is a good many, if not most, incoming students.

RAMSEY: Undergraduate course research and critical inquiry micro course.

PRENTICE: Is it specifically tailored for undergrads.

RAMSEY: Yes.. So, it's pretty basic level. But if you want to have a gander just let me know

PRENTICE: I do. She is Elizabeth Ramsey, associate professor and librarian at Boise State's Albertson's library. To you and your colleagues, for what you do every day, thank you. And thanks for giving me some time this morning.

RAMSEY: Thank you so much.
Find reporter George Prentice@georgepren

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