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Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology Drives Multidisciplinary Collaborations to Study Trust

Roma people living in France, driving around in white vans, were kidnapping women and children. Or that’s what social media posts on Facebook and SnapChat wanted French citizens to believe. That dissemination of misinformation in April 2019 led to mobs attacking Roma with knives and sticks and burning their cars.

Last spring, nearly 80 5G cell towers in the U.K. were set on fire because of rumors and conspiracy theories over a link between the roll out of 5G and the spread of coronavirus, misinformation that was spread primarily through social media networks.

The dangerous spread of misinformation and disinformation has not only endangered lives and property, but is threatening democracy itself. Misinformation fueled the mobs attacking the Capitol on Jan. 6, who believed the election was rigged. It is also exacerbating vaccine hesitancy around COVID-19. And the spread of that misinformation is difficult to contain. A 2019 MIT study found that falsehoods are 70% more likely to be retweeted on Twitter than the truth and reach their first 1,500 people six times faster.

The destructive spread of misinformation and continued attacks on news media credibility has fostered a crisis in trust. To address this, the University in 2019 committed $1.25 million to launch the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology as one of its eight “moonshot” initiatives.  The Consortium, housed at the College of Journalism and Communications, is a multidisciplinary initiative established to understand the dynamics that have undermined the trustworthiness of news and other media, and how to address it.  Consortium efforts are focused on applied research, tool development and the creation of new policy and law.

“We think about the crisis in trust as a media problem, defined by fake news, social media echo chambers and the decline of local newspapers. That is the heart of the issue, and it is at the core of what the Consortium is designed to address,” according to Janet Coats, who was named the inaugural managing director of the Consortium in December 2020.

“But the problem extends beyond journalism, and we have to understand its pervasiveness if we have a hope in the world of repairing it. That means understanding how the pace of changing technology affects trust. It means looking at how policies and laws build trust or help destroy it. It means understanding how our culture can reinforce an appreciation for facts. That’s what makes the Consortium different. We work across disciplines to understand how we build trust not only in media and institutions, but in each other. Then we get about the business of providing knowledge and tools to help us with that task.”

The spread of misinformation is deeply concerning to many UF alumni as well. Linda and Ken McGurn recently made a $2 million commitment to establish the McGurn Fellowship Program for Media Integrity and the Fight Against Disinformation. The gift will fund fellowships at the College of Journalism and Communications, the Levin College of Law and the Consortium. “The spread of false information and increasing distrust of credible news organizations is a scourge that is polarizing our nation and endangering our ability to survive as a democracy,” said Linda McGurn.

UF alumni Mitchell and Elissa Habib also expressed their concerns about the erosion of trust in media and donated $500,000 to the Consortium to create and support an advisory board. “The erosion of confidence in our nation’s press brings great sadness to Elissa and me and presents a danger to our society,” said Mitchell Habib, B.S. Advertising 1982, CJC Hall of Fame 2011. “Our hope is that the Consortium can bring focus on this critical issue so we can better understand its causes and reduce this decline in trust to ensure that we will live in a society where differences of position and policy are celebrated, but the facts are not disputed.”

In January 2020, the Consortium named 12 Trust Scholars across the University whose research addresses issues of trust. The research ranges from the allure of false information to predictive policing. Here a few examples of ongoing research sponsored by Trust Scholars.

Emily Rine Butler, senior lecturer, Dial Center for Written & Oral Communication, Department of Linguistics, CLAS

Butler, an applied linguist — or more specifically a conversation analyst — sees much that could be done to increase trust in media. One major solution for news outlets is focusing on connection. Part of rebuilding that connection is to pay attention to how an audience understands the world through their language choices, which offers a way forward to connect with them.

Roxane Coche, assistant professor, Department of Telecommunication, College of Journalism and Communications

A decade ago, academics studied the impact of race and gender on sports coverage. The results showed that male readers found male reporters more trustworthy on men’s sports like football. Female reporters were trusted only on women’s sports. Coche hopes to replicate and modernize the study by using video rather than print material and broadening the parameters to discover more about how race and gender impact trust in sports reporting.

Angela Kohnen, assistant professor, School of Teaching and Learning, College of Education

Kohnen’s mission is to educate students on what is known as “information literacy,” the skills needed to evaluate the credibility of the torrent of news and information they see online. She is developing a curriculum for eighth graders that teaches information literacy across subjects, which could have a major impact on how they trust material they encounter online.

Jamie Loizzo, assistant professor, Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, IFAS

In 2020, the global pandemic thrust scientists into the limelight, where they were both revered for vaccine breakthroughs and came under withering attack, as the pandemic response was pulled into election-year politics. Loizzo is conducting  research that will explain why and how scientists who engage in public communication are publicly targeted for their efforts.

Duncan Purves, assistant professor of Philosophy, CLAS

Police departments across the country are using algorithm-based systems not only to analyze where crime takes place, but to predict where it will happen next. Yet predictive technologies have been condemned by many as tools that promote prejudice and racial injustice. Purves, who studies the ethics of predictive policing, is collaborating with colleagues to convene a group of scholars across disciplines to share perspectives on predictive policing. Among their goals:  create a framework that police departments and others in government can use to evaluate the use of predictive technology.

Jieun Shin, assistant professor, Department of Telecommunication, College of Journalism and Communications

Most people have wondered at one time or another why false information persists on the internet. Despite warnings, Americans continue to share doctored photos, unsubstantiated rumors and half-truths. Shin has been addressing that question for almost a decade. Her research shows that false information holds an allure that cannot be replicated by verified stories, even if those stories are revelatory and important.

Colin Tucker Smith, assistant professor, Department of Psychology, CLAS

Jason von Meding, associate professor, M.E. Rinker School of Construction Management, College of Design, Construction & Planning

In an unusual collaboration between a psychologist and an architect, Smith and von Meding are exploring the idea that language can be as important as the source when it comes to enhancing or depleting trust. And that language may have a different impact on everyone who hears it. Their research indicates that fostering trust is more than finding the right words. It is understanding how those words affect the audience.

For more information, contact Janet Coats at



Posted: January 29, 2021
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