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A new fellowship program from ISU's Center for Civic Engagement is aimed at fighting 'truth decay'

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Illinois State University
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Illinois State University
Joseph Zompetti

A longtime communication professor is one of the awardees of a new fellowship sponsored by Illinois State University's Center for Civic Engagement.

According to a release from ISU's School of Communication, Joseph Zompetti was chosen "because of his long commitment to civic engagement and his recently scholarly pursuits involving fake news and Russian disinformation tactics across the globe."

Zompetti will continue that research alongside colleagues both domestically and in the Republic of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. He'll also be tasked with designing curriculum and supporting "faculty and staff to incorporate civic and digital literacy into courses and campus programs."

Those are the technical details.

In the abstract, the fellowship will allow Zompetti to continue doing what he feels was his calling and his means of aiding the preservation of democratic ideals.

"A long time ago, I was struggling, full of angst and depression and worried about the future of society, all the social problems and so forth," he said in a recent interview for WGLT's Sound Ideas. "The question I think we can all ask ourselves is ... 'What can I do, in my life, to make the world a slightly better place?' And my skill sets are, I believe, that I can teach."

Zompetti's background includes both political science and communications disciplines, which both contributed to the formation of the course he developed in 2014, Controversy in Contemporary Society.

"I start with that premise that I think that democracy is worth fighting for," he said. "And I don't care if my students are Democrats or Republicans or communists or diehard capitalists. What I care about is how they think, and how they get to that conclusion. And ultimately, I think that's what's going to preserve our democracy and maintain the freedoms that we enjoy."

Zompetti elaborated in his Sound Ideas interview:

WGLT: So do you see leading classes that are centered around communications and controversy, and bridging political divides, and recognizing disinformation as as your own contribution to preserving democracy?

Zompetti: I hope so. I've had the good fortune of traveling to 60 countries around the world. The reason why I'm saying this is not to gloat about that, but rather to say, you know, even places that I go to that are that are amazing — I always come back home and I'm very appreciative of the things that that we have here in the United States, some of the rights that we have, and some of the things that we're able to do now. Maybe there's a better way of governing, maybe there's a better way of having a society — I don't know, but at least right now, in human history, I think this is the best we've got. And if that's true, then it's worth fighting for, it's worth doing something to preserve, it's worth trying to maintain and trying to make better.

WGLT: Can you tell me a little bit about what you're hoping to accomplish with this fellowship?

Zompetti: The first is to continue a line of research that I'm doing that I could then share with the campus community and beyond — we could do Zoom lectures, or invite community members — to essentially present some of the work that I'm doing in a way that the (Center for Civic Engagement) could facilitate.

The second thing is to develop either classroom lectures, or workshops of some kind, that could then also be delivered: So, if a professor in biology or really any field wants to have a conversation with their students about disinformation, they can invite me or someone that uses the materials that I prepare to come into their classroom and do a 20-minute talk or, or even fill up an entire about disinformation that relates specifically to their field. I'm going to be working with an undergraduate student who also received a fellowship with the Center to develop what what I'm calling sort of a modular framework. We have core ideas and elements: What is disinformation? How is disinformation occurring? What are some some indicators that we can look for to spot disinformation? What are some ways to overcome this information? And then if a particular faculty member in biology, or mathematics or someplace wants us to come in, then we can tailor it specifically to their field and go into their classroom.

WGLT: As far as the research goes, do you have an idea of what you're hoping to find out via doing more research on disinformation, or what you're hoping to share out of that?

Zompetti: What I hope to do is... find some concrete suggestions for folks about how we can identify and avoid disinformation. How can we become more literate and competent in our consumption of information and news? Certainly, there are a lot of books and there are a lot of classes that are taught on things like media literacy, so I don't want to reinvent the wheel in that respect. But I'm hoping that because the strategies of disinformation that are being invoked by countries like Russia, China, even the United States, are constantly changing... the culprit, then, has to come up with new ways of instilling disinformation. I'm in part curious as to how that works, and what can we do to avoid being duped by it. How can we better equip ourselves to be knowledgeable so that we don't fall victim to or fall prey to disinformation campaigns? And while we can't always predict what's going to happen in the future, what we can do is look at general trends and patterns to see what's been happening in the past and what's going on now. Then, hopefully we learn from that so that we can be more media savvy consumers.

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Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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