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UA philosophy professor researches types of lying and how people deal with them

In an age where technology is omnipresent, its widespread use can make the distribution of misinformation quicker and more dangerous.

For the past six years, Don Fallis, a professor in the School of Information Resources and Library Science and adjunct associate professor of philosophy, has been researching lying and deception.

“[People] are constantly going on the Internet, watching TV or reading newspapers to try and get information about the world,” Fallis said. “We’d like this information to be accurate because if we get bad information then we can make bad decisions … like [voting] for the wrong candidate or [choosing] the wrong medical treatment.”

Fallis said he has been “looking for places where the interests of philosophers and the interests of informational scientists intersect.”

Fallis narrowed his research focus to the concept of disinformation, or information that is intended to mislead.

“Disinformation is especially dangerous,” Fallis said. “It is not just an accident. There is somebody out there who benefits from our being misled.”

In some instances, it is major corporations, public figures, or politicians who use false or inflated information for personal gain. Fallis spoke about the editing of one’s own Wikipedia page to boost their image in the eyes of the public.

“Before the rise of the Internet, most encyclopedias were published on paper and there were expert editors that would vet the stuff that went out. Now, when people need information a huge percentage of them go on Wikipedia, which doesn’t have a gatekeeping editor there,” Fallis said. “You are banking on this, kind of, crowd source phenomenon that you have all these people out there who will check for mistakes. This opens up possibilities for people to do tricky things.”

Jovon Cunningham, a communications sophomore, said he is hesitant to trust various media forums for information.

“A lot of people can hide behind a text or behind a computer screen without showing their true feelings. There is a lot of he said, she said in the news, and I don’t know if it is true,” Cunningham said.

The first task for dealing with the problem of disinformation and discovering its role in modern day society is to define the phenomenon. Lying, half-truths and spin are all forms of disinformation.

Since there isn’t much research, according to Fallis, about the broader category of intentionally deceptive information, he began to research lying, a topic that has a lot of known information.

“One way you can deceive people is by telling them something false, another way is by messing with the evidence, and another way to mislead people is by telling them something true that you know they will draw an incorrect inference from,” Fallis said. “Lying is an interdisciplinary topic.”

Because lying and deception are such a ubiquitous part of human life, they show up in fiction, film, and TV shows. People are grappling with this phenomenon and how people deal with it, Fallis added.

Nick Ridge, a sociology junior, mentioned how technological advancements have impacted the spread of information.

“As opposed to the old roots of basic typewriters, technology today, like cellphones, iPads and computers, make it easy to lie,” Ridge said.

There are many ways in which consumers can protect themselves from these falsifications and encourage a more transparent exchange of information.

“One thing [we must do] is to build better lie detectors or make people, themselves, better lie detectors,” Fallis said. “In a lot of information science work they aren’t distinguishing different types [of misinformation] but until we do that, we can’t build appropriate detectors. You want to figure out what policies we should tweak or create that are going to motivate people to produce policy information and deter them from spreading bad information.”

With Photoshop, blogging, and an explosion of social media, misinformation is becoming embedded with technology.

“Technology is allowing people to engage in deceptive behaviors in all sorts of new ways,” Fallis said. “There are people out there that want us to think one thing so that we will do what’s in their interest rather than what’s in our own interest. I think figuring out what this is and how it works will help all of us become more informed citizens in the information age.”

With a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California Irvine as well as an adjunct position in the UA Department of Philosophy, Fallis has had numerous journals and scholarly articles published, including “What is Lying?” in the Journal of Philosophy and “Lying and Deception” in Philosophers’ Imprint.

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