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Don Fallis searches for disinformation, the process of intentionally disseminating misleading information, in political dialogue, books, television and film – and he finds examples most everywhere.
That may come of little surprise, given the fictional nature of many entertainment-based cultural exchanges.
But for Fallis, a philosopher who studies social processes and information exchanges, the presence of disinformation – intentional lying, not honest mistakes or misinformation – allows for an important analysis of human tendencies, in fictional form or not.
"In fact, some people have argued that the reason humans have developed such great cognitive capacity beyond the rest of the animal kingdom is that we've developed the capacity and need to deceive," said Fallis, who also has a faculty position in the UA's philosophydepartment. "Lying and deception are important to the human condition."
For example, lying can serve as an important emotional buffer for some.
But what is concerning to Fallis, and what he persistently argues, is that disinformation robs us of certain other important capacities.
"There are structural phenomena that exist that make it difficult to be critical thinkers and to identify inaccurate information," Fallis said. "And there is something particularly dangerous about disinformation – when someone is actively trying to mislead us."
Fallis points to the obvious example of false information in advertising and in the political sphere, but there is a less obvious and less studied domain that chiefly concerns him: popular culture. And this is an area that UA philosophy professor Terry Horgan said is deserving of much more attention.
Horgan noted that Fallis' work falls under an emerging interdisciplinary field of social epistemology, which investigates how social beliefs are formed and, then, justified.
"A specific, important, issue within this field concerns the nature of lying and deception; we need to understand what constitutes lying and deception in order to be positioned to form informed critiques of certain social sources of so-called information as really being sources of disinformation," Horgan said.
What Fallis contributes, both to his field of study and to members of the general public interested in exploring comparable topics, is a framework or way of thinking about disinformation.
"On a social-pragmatic level, these issues are vital in the current social milieu, especially in light of the recent explosion of phenomena like online blog sites, television news shows that have a strong political bias, talk show radio programs and online sources like Google and Wikipedia," Horgan said.
"On the theoretical level, social epistemology is an increasingly important branch of the theory of knowledge, and the nature of lying and deception is a central issue within social epistemology itself," he also said.
To that point, Fallis has published scholarly articles, essays and book chapters, including those in the Philosophy and Popular Culture book series on "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory," "The Catcher in the Rye" and others. Fallis also has articles forthcoming on the HBO television shows "Boardwalk Empire" and "The Wire."
"Don is unusually good at unearthing, within such popular-culture sources, richly nuanced fictional examples of important philosophical problems, problems that have a significant impact on real-life questions we all face about how to live our lives, what to believe, what to value, how to raise our children, and what kind of society we wish to live in," Horgan said.
"His work on lying and deception is very well respected in scholarly circles and has been much discussed among scholars working on this topic, as it deserves to be," Horgan also said.
So, how do we reduce the instance of intentional or unintentional misinformation?
Fallis teaches a course on information quality and noted two prevailing ways to address disinformation and misinformation: build better detectors, like lie detectors and surveillance systems, to identify bad information, and better train individuals to detect lies.
Neither is proficient enough to address the problem with disinformation, though some existing and emerging techniques, like certification stamps on medical information websites and improved models for predicting deceptive behaviors, for example, are hopeful, Fallis said.
Much more is needed by way of research and in training the next population of information specialists and consumers of knowledge and information.
"We will be able to do that when we have a greater understanding about what disinformation is," Fallis said. "That is why I am looking carefully at this conceptual question. In order to take effective steps to deal with the threat of disinformation, we first need to know exactly what disinformation is. "
Many of the most significant, globally impactful companies and products recently created are tied to digital communications and computational technologies – wireless networks, social networks, smartphones and big data mining applications are among them.
Despite the pervasive nature of digital communications, few academic programs actively train students to understand and effectively manage the social aspects and implications of the Digital Age.
With that in mind, University of Arizona faculty members have developed the new eSociety program, which will be offered beginning in fall 2013.
"Technology is the most important revolution of our lifetime," said J.P. Jones, III, dean of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"It has completely transformed the way we interact with one another, learn new things, and form communities. It’s even changed the way we govern ourselves and the forms of protest we see today. Democracy is now technologically mediated," Jones said. "And every social science discipline has a role to play in understanding these changes."
In addition to being highly marketable, particularly to students interested in pursuing careers that incorporate digital communication and social media, eSociety already has captured the eye of top-level executives. The UA program will be offered as an undergraduate degree option and a minor, and students are already being advised for admission.
"There are some universities offering programs in Internet studies that are technically driven, but there are not many looking at how information technology is changing how we behave, communicate and practice as members of society," said Pamela Coonan, the research support and enrollment manager for the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
"That's how our program is different. You have a lot of people who have the technical skills, but do not have the ability to communicate effectively and analyze the data," Coonan said. "That is what brings the information to life; understanding the social practices of what we do."
Understanding Emerging Social Interactions, Practices
Housed in the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science, or SIRLS, eSociety is interdisciplinary with a two-part intent: to provide students with both the social science and data management skills and theories necessary to engage in the world of Internet-based data and interactions.
"This degree is about society – the ways we relate to social and historical changes, enact our roles and work collaboratively," said Catherine Brooks, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in SIRLS and the communication department.
But this requires moving beyond the existing belief that information and data are merely products that can be transferred. Instead, data, especially data derived from and transferred in digital formats, are social processes, Brooks said.
"Data are laden with our philosophies of knowledge and laden with issues of identity, class and culture," said Brooks, who led the curricular development for eSociety and noted that the program would prepare students for life and work in contemporary society. "Data are more than just a thing and a product; they are laden with societal concerns."
To better understand what is driving the need for such a program requires a quick look at the evolution of companies and sites such as Pinterest and Netflix or the impact of social media on global events such as the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring of the last year.
Expertise in eSociety should lead to understandings of social media marketing or other networking skills, as well as more complex understandings about Web-users, such as their shared ideologies, typical human practices, interpretations of information or perspectives on differing modalities for receiving digitally based information.
The program is not just about teaching students how to best collect user information for the benefit of marketing.
Within the UA program, courses offered will cover topics that include social media strategies, artificial intelligence, identity in the digital realm, privacy concerns, Internet communications law, information ethics, strategies for managing a social presence and the access and barring of access to information, among others.
"Blending all of these topics is very novel and exciting," Brooks said, adding that in addition to learning how to find and analyze information, and while learning about social practices and cultural implications of digital practices, students also will learn how to manage and use large data sets.
Consider Don Fallis, a SIRLS professor, who proposed a course on knowledge in the digital world.
Fallis is an expert in the theory of knowledge and is concerned with the pervasive nature of disinformation – the intentional practice of misinforming others. Coupled with that scholarship is an interest in lies and deception.
"People giving us inaccurate information gets in the way of acquiring knowledge about the world," Fallis said.
"We have to look at the various ways in which information and information technology are affecting the ways in which we acquire knowledge," he said. "There are so many ways information technology affects our ability to acquire knowledge."
Or to forget.
Brooks noted that with the proliferation of surveillance of GPS tracking, it is increasingly impossible to be anonymous.
"Everyone might know where we are at all times. But there is the human right to forget," said Brooks, who joined the SIRLS faculty in 2012 and also serves as the school's director of undergraduate studies.
"With all of this information, we can catalog and track information on events; the way data is managed and archived makes it hard to forget," she said, which gets into interesting and concerning ethical dilemmas.
Potential Benefits for Individuals, Corporations
During spring 2012, Coonan sent targeted messages to companies in Tucson and Phoenix with information about eSociety while also seeking their participation in a roundtable about the degree's applicability.
"Within less than 30 minutes, I received positive responses from a major entertainment firm in Phoenix and from a local branch of a major media outlet," Coonan said. "These firms were so excited to be a part of the talks that they've been in touch a few times just to make sure we still have them on the participant list."
The eSociety degree will prepare students to work in social media production, marketing, big data analysis, consulting with governmental and nonprofit organizations as well as in business – much of which is new for today's employers.
"They know we need to broadly train employees, but in what – it has yet to have a name but we know it is about social media analysis and social marketing; someone who can data mine and turn that into chunks of information that can be used by organizations," Brooks said.
Companies are increasingly concerned with improving data mining and analysis, improving reach and impact via social media and also with privacy and legal issues in a Web-mediated world – all of which eSociety will address.
"What that means for students, and this is classically what we believe in the social and behavioral sciences, is that you train people for the long run – not the short," Jones said. "We need to make people versatile enough that when they change their careers four times in a lifetime, they can use their knowledge to bridge careers, one to another."
Bryan Heidorn, the director of SIRLS, noted, for example, that it was only about 20 years ago that in order to be successful in any Internet realm a strong computer programming background was a prerequisite.
"But others have built up these tools for us so you don't have to build your own hammer – just take one that exists at the moment," Heidorn said.
"In a way, there are too many tools. Today, there are new tools coming out every week, and you need to discover those tools and decide which will serve the right purposes for you," Heidorn said.
"This is not just about putting messages out on Facebook or marketing to sell widgets. This is about analytics and helping you manage your operations," Heidorn said, noting that this is especially important for understanding social and political phenomena. "It's important to have the long-term view and to be able to interpret the consequences."
Graduates of eSociety could one day be those helping to solve problems with the digital divide and addressing the pervasive nature of misinformation on the Internet, and they undoubtedly will aid in the establishment of new digital communities, practices and applications.
The continued evolution of digital communications and infusion of technology in day-to-day interactions will only continue to have a strong impact, whether locally or globally, Brooks said.
That means the UA's eSociety program would also grow and evolve, eventually incorporating other disciplines.
"I see eSociety evolving as our historic milieu continues to shift. eSociety is obviously something that will continually adapt to changing technologies and shifting cultural needs, norms and dilemmas,” Brooks said, emphasizing the importance of the program's interdisciplinary nature.
"To maintain a strong program, all involved departments will need to continue to be intellectually and programmatically flexible," she said. "By keeping an open mind to the ways that cross-department and multi-college endeavors can happen, we are really going to benefit the students at the University of Arizona."