Focus on research: Dr Brendan Spillane, Adapt
Dr Brendan Spillane is a funded investigator at Adapt, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for AI-driven digital content technology. In this interview he talks about the power of misinformation, disinformation and the work being done to combat them.
Tell us about your academic journey to date.
I started off as a research assistant at Adapt in the School of Computer Science & Statistics in Trinity College Dublin working in the area of personalisation. I then began a PhD under the supervision of Prof Vincent Wade and the late Prof Seamus Lawless, the focus of which evolved into investigating human judgement of bias and credibility when reading news.
Towards the end of my PhD and afterwards, I was part of a team that worked on conversational agents and dialogue. I still have a lot of interest in this area and I hope to combine it with my current work on disinformation.
I then joined the Horizon 2020 Provenance project as a post-doctoral researcher. Provenance was focused on developing interventions to warn users of potential disinformation in the content they were consuming.
While working on Provenance I won a two-year post-doctoral research fellowship from the Irish Research Council to undertake research into credibility and disinformation. This combined my PhD research and my work in Provenance.
While undertaking this IRC fellowship, I built and coordinated a consortium that won significant backing from the EU’s research and innovation funding programme, Horizon Europe, called Vigilant. This is a three-year, €4 million project with 17 partners including four European law enforcement agencies (LEAs), which began in November 2022.
Vigilant will equip European LEAs with advanced technologies from academia to detect and analyse disinformation that is linked to criminal activities. We are 12 months into the project and due to the commitment and hard work of all the partners, things are going exceptionally well.
In September 2022, I joined the School of Information & Communication Studies in University College Dublin as an assistant professor. ICS is a rapidly expanding school with excellent staff that undertake a lot of inter- and transdisciplinary research.
Finally, I am also a partner in another Horizon Europe project called Athena which kicked off this month. It is a three-year, €3.1 million project with 14 partners, which will analyse disinformation campaigns linked to foreign information manipulation and interference.
Where did your interest in misinformation came from?
My PhD was focused on bias as a dimension of credibility. I have been very fortunate that this has become especially important in recent years and as a result attracts a lot of interest, attention and funding.
Another factor that influenced my career was that I have always had a strong interest in the news, geopolitics, security, and the weaponisation of information through propaganda. Credibility research can be traced back to Persuasion Science and research into propaganda in the 1940s and 1950s investigating the factors that made a communicator credible.
Have you been surprised at how little it takes for someone to take a conspiracy theory on board?
I think we first have to admit that we all have our biases. Fundamentally, belief in a conspiracy often results from a cognitive bias. One of my favourites is the ‘illusory superiority bias’, a common effect of which is that the majority of divers believe they are above average in ability. Another is the ‘bias blind spot’, where we recognise the impact of bias in others, but not in ourselves. We should also recognise that many of us may believe something that is not true, but because the belief is so minor, so niche, or because we have not discussed it publicly, we have never encountered any dissenting opinions.
Those susceptible to conspiracies often need to come up with a theory to explain negative things in their life or in society. This can be something specific that affects them, a group they belong to, or something more general that affects society as a whole. Different people have different levels of susceptibility, and those who are susceptible often believe in more than one conspiracy.
What surprises me most is seeing this happen in real time. The focus on the negative, assigning blame to someone or some group, the belief that there is a plot, or that there is someone or some group directing an attack against them and their way of life, and ignoring evidence to the contrary.
It is especially easy for someone to take on a new conspiracy if they can connect it to one they already believe.
Misinformation seems to be a cornerstone of identity politics. Is there a way to ‘deprogramme’ people without causing insult?
Challenging people usually does not work, often this can just re-enforce their beliefs and they may be less likely to engage with you. The key is to encourage critical thinking by either asking open-ended questions about their general belief, and detailed questions about specific aspects.
It is important not to get confrontational or combative. By encouraging critical self-reflection through appropriate questioning, the person will often come to their own realisation that what they believe is not true. Once a person is able to dismiss a conspiracy, you can use the same process if they believe in other conspiracies.
Election integrity is something social networks are struggling to cope with. Is the threat overblown?
No, its not, if anything, its seriousness may be underreported. Just a few months ago we saw large amounts of misinformation and disinformation in the Australian Voice referendum which was meant to give indigenous Australians a voice in how laws are created in the Australian parliament. Misinformation and even disinformation was widespread in the 2016 US election, and it was even more so in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The effect of misinformation and disinformation on election integrity is a serious matter, and it needs a serious response.
Is there a kind of gobal ‘insurrectionist playbook’ when it comes to spreading misinformation or do campaigns wor most effectively at local levels?
It’s a combination. There is a standard playbook with standard topics, tropes and narratives, but these can be adapted to a specific country or culture. The standard playbook often focuses on nationalistic rhetoric, that we are giving up sovereignty or individual rights, that the government or some other shadowy organisation is trying to control us, or it focuses on highly emotive topics such as attacks on our health or children, i.e., vaccines. Sometimes the evolution of the misinformation and disinformation is organic and it naturally evolves as it is spread. Other times, it evolves in specific ways to suit the narrative of the spreaders and how its dissemination is organised.