Institute of Politics to co-host conference on disinformation and erosion of democracy

Co-hosted with The Atlantic, April 6-8 event will include Barack Obama, Nobel laureate Maria Ressa

With democracies across the globe under assault, and as the world attempts to understand the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and The Atlantic announced today that they will jointly host a conference exploring the organized spread of disinformation and strategies to respond to it.

The three-day conference will begin April 6 with a keynote discussion with former President Barack Obama; remarks from journalist Maria Ressa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; and a conversation between David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics, and Anne Applebaum, staff writer at The Atlantic and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The full agenda for “Disinformation and the Erosion of Democracy” is available online. Other participants include Sen. Amy Klobuchar, JD’85; Christopher Krebs, a former Department of Homeland Security director focused on cybersecurity; journalists, including Ben Smith of Semafor and Kara Swisher of The New York Times; and UChicago faculty members. They will join global experts and policymakers in Chicago to discuss the growing threat disinformation poses to democracies in a highly polarized digital age.

The sessions will be held at UChicago’s David Rubenstein Forum, and will also be streamed live for virtual audiences on the IOP’s YouTube page.

The conference will explore the roots and scope of the problem, the threats posed by new technological advances, and the tools and policies required to neutralize them. Panels will also discuss the challenge presented when the term “disinformation” itself becomes fractious, and the tension between free expression and the need to combat wanton and willful disinformation.

“Disinformation and conspiracy theories, turbocharged and micro-targeted by the new tools social media and big data provide, are a clear and present danger to democracies,” Axelrod said. “They have become weapons with which to foment mistrust in our institutions, sow division and even political violence. But combating them is a complex challenge. We hope over these three days to not only shine a light on the problem but also potential solutions.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, says the magazine’s partnership in this conference is part of a major commitment he and his journalists are making at a crucial juncture in our history.

“Disinformation causes a great deal of stress on otherwise functioning democracies, and The Atlantic’s preoccupation, for 165 years, has been the state of American democracy, and the state of the democratic idea worldwide,” said Goldberg. “Our conference will focus on the weaponization of disinformation and the competing definitions of disinformation itself. We look forward to bringing together, with David Axelrod’s IOP, a top-tier group of experts, policymakers, journalists and politicians to analyze this important phenomenon.”

The conference will be organized around a series of keynotes, panel discussions and breakout sessions. Among them:

  • A conversation with President Barack Obama, moderated by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic
  • What Happens When We Can’t Tell What’s Real?, featuring Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy
  • A conversation with Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, moderated by Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic
  • Defending Free Speech in the Mobile Internet Age, featuring Mary McCord of Georgetown Law and Prof. Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School
  • Imagining a Better Social Media, featuring Ethan Zuckerman, professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Targeted by Lies: How Disinformation Spurs Political Violence, featuring Christopher Krebs, former director of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; Asst. Prof. Kathleen Belew of the University of Chicago; and Rep. Adam Kinzinger

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