Carnegie Mellon University

The IPS Policy Forum brings politicians, scholars, and policy makers to the Carnegie Mellon community.

Jennifer Golbeck had her first run-in with Benford's Law while on sabbatical in 2015. Golbeck, a professor at the University of Maryland's College of Information Studies, was fascinated by the concept, which states that in unrelated sets of numbers, the first digit is not evenly distributed but is more likely to be small, and more likely to be a one than anything else. 

This concept later proved crucial to two aspects of her research of misinformation. Twitter accounts with follower numbers that violated this law tended to be bots. And though two decades of studies have shown that the law does not apply to election results, because the number of votes cast for various candidates are not unrelated, many still tried to use the law as proof of election fraud in 2020.

"I try not to wade into political debates online, but you may not abuse my favorite statistical technique," Golbeck said during her IPS Policy Forum event. The talk, co-sponsored by Carnegie Mellon's Center for Informed Democracy and Social-cybersecurity (IDeaS) and titled "It Hasn't Even Been A Year: Social Media and Disinformation in the US Since November 2020," discussed the detection of, refutation of, and tracking of misinformation on social media.

Among the highlights of Golbeck's research: Refuting misinformation with facts often leads to more dramatic misinformation; people are more likely to believe facts if they are presented by a white male rather than a woman or minority; and exposure to alternate views can increase polarization in the other direction. Golbeck also noted her concerns regarding today's technological surveillance capabilities.

"I think the current state of surveillance is very bad," she said. " ... More of my worry is on the private sector part of things because there is just so much money to be made by surveilling us in all sorts of ways that we don't want, and a reasonable person wouldn't expect, and there's no incentive to not do it."

As always, our lectures are free and open to the public. 

*Lecture titles and topics are subject to change.