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Is Misinformation the Problem? Re-examining the Infodemic

Date: Wednesday, March 15, 2023
Time: 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. ET
Type of event: Science, Technology, and Society Lecture
Location: NIH Videocast


Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory, a cross-disciplinary program of research, teaching and policy engagement for the study of abuse in current information technologies. Renee investigates the spread of narratives across social and media networks, with an interest in understanding how platform algorithms and affordances intersect with user behavior and factional crowd dynamics. She studies how actors leverage the information ecosystem to exert influence, from domestic activists promoting health misinformation and conspiracy theories, to the full-spectrum information operations executed by state actors.

Event Description

Sponsored by the NLM Office of Strategic Initiatives, the Science, Technology, and Society Lecture aims to raise awareness around the societal and ethical implications of biomedical research conduct and the use of advanced technologies. Each spring, NLM invites a leading voice working at the intersection of biomedicine, data science, ethics, and justice to present their research and how it relates to the mission and vision of both NLM and NIH. NLM sees such considerations as fundamental to advancing biomedical discovery and human health for the benefit of all.

As COVID-19 spread across the United States, public health officials and science communicators found themselves wrangling both the pandemic and what was often described as an “infodemic,” a barrage of false and misleading information about the disease, treatments, and eventually vaccines. In this talk, we will explore that infodemic, drawing on research that examined how it took shape, what narratives reached which publics, and the network dynamics that assisted its spread. While misinformation was indeed present in many narratives that went viral, much of what proliferated is perhaps more accurately classified as rumors. Unlike misinformation, rumors are often based on incomplete or partial information - and they sometimes turn out to be true. We will examine how rumors start, why they persist and recur, and why they are so effective at spreading on social media… and, of course, some mechanisms for mitigation.