Social media misinformation, and the real or alleged influence it is having on social life, is one of the biggest dilemmas of the early 21st century. From the mundane (“is that picture of Barack Obama real or fake?”) to the deadly (“There is a global conspiracy to replace white Europeans with members of inferior races, and only violence will stop them!”). This presentation takes a deep dive into the context, spread and appeal of social media misinformation and the problems associated with controlling it. Throughout the seminar, I will be highlighting the current work of our DPI Science Team (“Developing Easy-to-Use Application-Based Software to Combat Social Media Misinformation – A Multi-Disciplinary Collaboration”) and also address some larger questions; what exactly constitutes social media misinformation? What is the relationship between free speech and regulating social media misinformation? Are there ways to identify social media misinformation that are not incompatible with freedom of expression and free speech norms? And finally, does any attempt to fight social media misinformation have a chance on a global scale against bad actors and human frailties?
Kevin T. Leicht is Professor and former Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Science Team Lead at the Discovery Partners Institute. He is former Chair of the Department of Sociology and Director of the Iowa Social Science Research Center at The University of Iowa and past Program Officer for the Sociology and Resource Implementations for Data Intensive Research Program at the National Science Foundation. He is the past editor of Research in Social Stratification and Mobility (the official journal of the Social Stratification Section of the International Sociological Association) and The Sociological Quarterly (the official journal of the Midwest Sociological Society). He has written extensively on issues relating to economic development, globalization, and political sociology, his work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Spencer Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, and his published articles have appeared in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, the Academy of Management Journal, Law and Society Review, and other outlets. He is the author or editor of five books including Professional Work: A Sociological Approach (with Mary Fennell, published by Blackwell), Postindustrial Peasants: The Illusion of Middle-Class Prosperity (with Scott Fitzgerald) winner of the Midwest Sociological Society Best Book Award for 2009, Middle Class Meltdown in America: Causes, Consequences, and Remedies (Routledge, 2014, 2nd edition 2022, also with Scott Fitzgerald), and The New Dark Age: American Professions in Decline (Routledge, forthcoming, with Mary Fennell). His current research examines the consequences of extreme inequality in developed societies and the social and cultural consequences of social marginalization. His most recent paper, a product of a National Science Foundation grant and DPI project, is titled “The Presentation of Self in Virtual Life: Disinformation Warnings and the Spread of Misinformation Regarding COVID-19,” (forthcoming in RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences).