Yotam Ophir is the go-to expert on the spread of misinformation

Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication who focuses on misinformation and political extremism, has recently been interviewed by several prominent publications and was a featured speaker at the University of Wisconsin’s 2023 science communication colloquium on the far-right’s abuse of science and medicine and the promotion of conspiracy theories.

The Guardian (11/22) quoted Ophir in a story about Republican politicians spreading misinformation about litter boxes in grade school for students who “identify” as furries. While the fact that anyone believed there were litter boxes in schools seems comical at first, it deeply disturbed Ophir, “…throughout history when dangerous political leaders wanted to promote propaganda at the expense of vulnerable populations, a key strategy was to compare populations to animals,” he said. “Even if Joe Rogan doesn’t say it explicitly, what I hear as someone who studies propaganda is that he’s suggesting that [members of] the LGBTQ+ community are unnatural, almost non-human. We know from the past that people feel much more comfortable attacking humans when they don’t see them as humans any more.”

Time (11/22) quoted Ophir on the role of social media during the recent active shooter incident at the University of Virginia. He said, “Rumors and misinformation thrive at times of crisis and confusion…there’s a need for people to minimize uncertainty and know what’s going on.”

Newsweek (1/23) interviewed Ophir about the impact of the viral “Captain HIMARS” video tweeted by Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. Ophir noted that it extremely difficult to determine the effect of the Ukrainian campaign in real time; “Understanding media effects 'in the wild,' in the real world, is very hard. The real world is not like a lab where a scientist could control everything and manipulate people's exposure to messages in a [rigorous] fashion.” Further complicating analyses is the fact that the same message may affect different audiences in very different ways. “When messages have so many goals that are different to different audiences, it becomes even harder to fully evaluate their effects.” Western skepticism may be indicative of how many times Russia has, itself, used disinformation and propaganda. "We should ask not why the Ukrainian campaign did better (since we don't really know that it did) but rather why it seems to us that it did."

Grid (1/23) quoted Ophir extensively on the dangers of political ads being allowed back on Twitter. He stated that the problem with political ads is that they can be microtargeted to specific populations, so they can easily be exploited by people trying to influence political elections — from both within the United States and by foreign actors. But this danger is unlikely to dissuade Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk. “The thing about misinformation that we do know is that it’s engaging,” Ophir said. “People engage with it, people look at it, people read it, people share it even when you disagree with it.”

Insider (1/23) quoted Ophir in an article about volunteers who used digital ads to counter Russian propaganda about Ukraine planning to use similar tactics to try to fight misinformation in countries like Syria and Iran. Ophir cautioned, “In the last 20 years of misinformation research, we've learned that correcting misinformation is extremely complicated — at times it can even backfire if you do it incorrectly.”

Several interviews are about misinformation on TikTok. NBC News (2/23) quoted Ophir on the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment fueled fear, Ophir said “There’s this brand of conspiracies that dominates a lot of American imagination that requires absolutely no evidence at all,” he also raised doubts about the motives of TikTok users who post conspiracy theories, asking whether they are truly interested in uncovering hidden realities or simply seeking viral attention. Insider (2/23) quoted both Ophir and Heidi Julien about a viral TikTok arguing the Titanic never sank that shows how quickly conspiracies spread on the platform. He said “what TikTok wants is for us to stay on the platform for as long as possible, it has no incentive to fact-check or remove misinformation”.

AP News (2/2023) quoted Ophir on conspiracy theories related to high egg prices. “The conspiracy that feed companies are deliberately trying to sabotage backyard egg supplies found an audience thanks to a broader distrust of government officials and experts…. It’s common for people to look for scapegoats during periods of social anxiety”.