David Lazer, NULab co-director and University Distinguished Professor of political science and computer sciences, was recently interviewed by Experience, an award-winning magazine published by Northeastern University. It’s yet another example of Lazer offering insight into his work as co-director of the COVID States Project, an interdisciplinary and multi-university effort to examine public response to the pandemic. This effort, which reports monthly at a national level, has proven extremely useful in gauging the effect of online misinformation about COVID-19, public health measures, and vaccination.
Lazer, with the help of his team, has found that misinformation comes about not just through a lack of good information, but through an abundance of bad information. As he told Experience, “There are phrases and ideas that just may not have been explored very much because nobody thinks they’re credible… So when you go into Google, and you search something like ‘apricot seeds and cancer,’ for example, no one’s studying that who’s legit, because nobody really thinks apricot seeds will cure cancer. So there is content out there; it’s just bad content.”
Briony Swire-Thompson, director of the Psychology of Misinformation Lab and senior research scientist at Northeastern, has conducted research which offers a simple solution: fight bad information with good information. If the information is reliable, chances are there won’t be as much backfire as some might fear. As Swire-Thompson said to Experience, “People are far more willing to update their beliefs than a lot of people realize.” All it might take is greater action on the part of the social media companies who control the online spaces where misinformation takes place.