False news often goes viral on social media, spread by algorithms that prioritize novel and sensational content.
Sometimes, it’s a harmless hoax designed to generate clicks. But misinformation can have dangerous consequences. During the pandemic, fraudulent “Covid cures” were shared with millions of online viewers while rampant conspiracy theories eroded trust in public health agencies.
“We all can be vulnerable to misinformation,” says Porismita Borah, professor at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. “The early days of the pandemic created the perfect environment for misinformation to spread online. Covid was a brand-new problem, people were fearful, and scientific information about the virus was still emerging.”
Borah is part of a team of US researchers developing strategies to slow the online spread of misinformation. Armed with a $5 million National Science Foundation grant, the effort involves a “detection team” that monitors social media sites and other online hubs for the top-trending falsehoods of the day.
Early on, the detection team focused on falsehoods related to Covid vaccines and the integrity of the 2020 presidential election. But the work is expanding into other areas of health and public policy, such as the risks of drinking raw milk and the benefits of being vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
After people were exposed to erroneous information on social media, the researchers tested the effectiveness of corrective messaging, which appeared as advertisements.
The results reinforced what prior research has shown, Borah says: timely corrections can slow the spread of misinformation. Compared to a control group, people who were exposed to corrective messages online were less likely to believe the false information and repost it to friends and followers.
The researchers are also enlisting the news media. They’re developing a dashboard, called Chime In, where journalists can see the top-spreading misinformation and the platforms and websites where it’s gaining traction online.
“Journalists are really on the forefront of this, because they face misinformation all the time,” Borah says. “The dashboard gives them tools to spot misinformation and provides tested strategies to reduce its spread.”
In addition to Borah, the team includes researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Georgia Institute of Technology, and media organizations. When the dashboard is tested later this year, the team will also work with the International Fact-Checking Network and Snopes.com.
“We can’t completely get rid of misinformation; that’s never possible,” Borah says. “But we can reduce the size of the audience by slowing down its spread.”
Slowing misinformation’s spread: Q&A with Porismita Borah