New Fronts in the War on Misinformation
National Academies host three events to explore ways to expand the reach of accurate science and health information online
By Sara Frueh | March 2, 2020
The countless false claims that have spread alongside the novel coronavirus — inaccurate advice about how to prevent the virus, for example, and conspiracy theories about its origins — are just the latest manifestation of an ongoing problem: the online proliferation of misinformation about science and health.
The National Academies recently hosted and helped organize three events focused on countering misinformation: the MisinfoCon conference, a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, and a meeting to explore ways to expand successful efforts. The events gathered researchers, journalists, foundations, online platforms, government officials, and citizens to discuss how to combat misinformation and bolster credible information online — and in the case of the edit-a-thon, to actually do it.
Understanding the Appeal of Misinformation
At the Feb. 22 MisinfoCon conference — organized by Hacks/Hackers, a network of journalists and technologists — researchers and communications practitioners shared their evidence and experiences with misinformation and possible responses.
While a global survey showed that 73% of people say they are worried about false information, behaviors are different, said presenter Kristy Roschke of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. “There’s a dichotomy between what people say that they want — which is credible, trustworthy information — and a lot of the information that they click on.”
Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou of the National Cancer Institute, who studies health communication around cancer and other topics, said that misinformation often has the appeal of simplicity. “In contrast, credible health information tends to be complex, nuanced, and uncertain.” Other factors that aid the spread of misinformation, she said, are information vacuums — such as the unknowns around the new coronavirus — and the existence of echo chambers in which people self-curate content to find things that reinforce their attitudes.
Harnessing the Positive Potential of Social Media
Although social media can exacerbate the problem of misinformation, it can also help fix it by being a source of correction, said Leticia Bode, an associate professor in the Communication, Culture, and Technology program at Georgetown University, and another presenter at MisinfoCon. Because social networks on social media tend to be larger and more varied than social ties in real life, they increase the odds that people will correct one another, because there’s a chance they’ll disagree, she said.
A powerful and scalable aspect, Bode said, is “observational correction”: seeing a friend’s post and a correction beneath it at the same time. These corrections are effective when posted by a social media platform itself — for example, when Facebook automatically puts “related links” with correct information directly below a user’s misleading post.
Individual users can also effectively correct one another, but they need to provide a link to a credible source with a clear headline, and corrections from multiple users are needed to be as effective as a platform correction. “So if you see someone share misinformation on social media and someone corrects them, you should actually correct them again,” said Bode. “That lends more credibility to that correction.”
Observational correction works, Bode said. She and her colleagues have tested it on a range of issues — GE foods, the safety of the flu shot, sunscreen, the origins of the Zika virus — and a variety of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a video platform. Across all of the studies they’ve conducted, they’ve seen a 10% to 25% effect in terms of drops in misperceptions. However, there was one issue for which the approach didn’t work — the safety of the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine, said Bode. “That seems to be an issue for which beliefs are so ingrained that it’s really difficult to move people.”
MisinfoCon closed with a variety of breakout sessions that further examined approaches to combatting misinformation about science and health. One session, for example, explored ways to build critical thinking skills in order to inoculate people against misinformation, while another highlighted an effort by journalists to increase transparency in reporting as a way to build trust.
The event, organized by Ahmed Medien of Hacks/Hackers, was the latest in a series of MisinfoCons that have been held in London and Kiev, Ukraine, as well as at other U.S. institutions. Jennifer 8. Lee, who helped conceive of and launch the series, sees reason for optimism in the fight against science and health misinformation, compared with other types of misinformation. “What’s wonderful about science and health misinformation is that — with some exceptions — it is not partisan, and there is ground truth and there is authority, and the platforms are more comfortable looking to an authority like the National Academy of Sciences for what is true.”
Watch the archived MisinfoCon@NASEM webcast
Improving Climate Information on Wikipedia
At an event held alongside MisinfoCon, volunteers drew upon two National Academies reports to boost the quality of climate science information on a website visited by over a billion people each month — Wikipedia. Local Wikimedia chapters hold such “edit-a-thons” to enlist volunteers in improving the quantity and accuracy of information on a particular topic.
“Wikipedia is complicated and also essential,” said Phoebe Ayers, a reference librarian at MIT and former Wikimedia Foundation trustee who worked with the local chapter and the National Academies to organize the event. “It is the most used reference source in the world by far. It’s also not finished. It’s a work in progress, and even articles that exist need to be improved, updated, filled out with the latest science.”
The event provided volunteers with training in how to edit Wikipedia pages, along with overviews of the reports Attribution of Extreme Weather Events in the Context of Climate Change and Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. Participants then spent time using the reports’ content to improve information on relevant Wikipedia pages.
“I’m excited about this event because to our knowledge, this is the first edit-a-thon that we’ve done in the U.S. on technical topics around climate change,” said Ayers. “As everyone here knows, it’s an area that’s desperately important for humanity, and so we’re really trying to gear up in this area.”
A session each day was also devoted to improving the biographies of women scientists on Wikipedia — an effort prompted by the fact that, despite recent progress, women still account for fewer than 20% of profiles on the site. The gender gap was part of what inspired Brittany Shepherd, a fellow at the National Institutes of Health, to participate. “When I started reading, I wasn’t sure what a Wikipedia edit-a-thon was — I’ve never actually edited a Wikipedia article before — and the more that I looked into it, the more I realized there were disparities in information, particularly in women’s profiles.”
Over the two-day edit-a-thon, about 50 total volunteers participated — among them National Academy of Sciences member and treasurer Bill Press. “Science communication is such an important part of what we do, and we have to keep in touch with the ways people actually communicate, and clearly Wikipedia is one of the main ways now,” he said.
Exploring Ways to Expand Successful Efforts
A third gathering brought together leaders of the National Academies with science-communication and misinformation researchers, journalists, current and former government officials, leaders of philanthropic organizations, as well as representatives from online search and social-media platforms to discuss the latest understanding of how misinformation proliferates and how best to counter it.
The discussion included consideration of how the Academies’ own Based on Science website helps debunk misinformation, how it could be expanded to address more topics of concern, and what other role the National Academies could play in leading efforts, especially among researchers, to combat misinformation. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who spoke at the meeting, said, “We are losing [the health misinformation battle]; we are getting our butts kicked online! So I applaud the National Academies for taking on misinformation.”