NPR’s Ailsa Chang talks with Neil Johnson, a professor of physics at George Washington University, about his study on the spread of scientific misinformation about the coronavirus and its effects.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
As the coronavirus has proliferated, so has false information about the origins of the virus, the potential treatments and vaccines. And now scientists have mapped the spread of that online misinformation and have shown how it can influence undecided minds. Neil Johnson is the lead author on that work, which appears today in the journal Nature.
NEIL JOHNSON: Thank you so much, Ailsa. I’m so happy to be talking to you.
CHANG: Well, now, you studied and mapped how misinformation has been flowing on Facebook. What did you find in this study?
JOHNSON: Yeah. We expected to see that, in the map of the online world, there will be a core of the central establishment, accepted medical science, government public health advice, surrounded maybe by some fringe kind of buzzing around. And we found the opposite. The core of the whole online debate of – and discussion and battle over views is really dominated by this relatively small-size but very well-distributed organized communities of distrust that have embedded themselves with just everyday other communities, such as pet lovers or parents’ associations. And the establishment communities are off to one side.
CHANG: Well, let’s talk about how that actually plays out. Like, one fascinating thing you found is that undecided people are getting exposed to anti-vaccination views not while visiting anti-vaccination Facebook groups, but just within other community groups that seem totally unrelated to vaccination, like the pet groups that you just mentioned. Can you just explain how that unfolded?
JOHNSON: Yes, because of the way social media just works. So if communities are linked, then people in the pet lovers community can be exposed to information and rumors – false information – coming from these other communities – for example, that Bill Gates will eventually have a vaccine that injects semiconductor quantum dots into children…
JOHNSON: …As part of the vaccine so that they can monitor, then, which children have had a vaccine.
CHANG: Wow. OK. So then how are these anti-vaccination messengers trying to sell these ideas – these patently false ideas? But how are they trying to make these ideas more persuasive to people online?
JOHNSON: This is one of the most remarkable things that we found. It’s almost like the public health pro-establishment – it’s almost like I’m selling one brand of ice cream, vanilla. It’s the best vanilla there is – whereas the communities of distrust, it’s like walking into one of those stores with every other flavor possible. And so they may be mixing distrust of vaccines with distrust of big pharma, or we don’t like government control, or we want freedom of choice for our kids, et cetera, et cetera, so that each one of these communities has its own nuanced flavor. So – well, then it’s anti-vaccine. It also – it has something that appeals to anyone.
CHANG: Now that you have this map and you’ve seen how conspiracy theories are proliferating online, do you have any ideas on how public health groups can intervene, get more involved in this fight, in order to get real information out to people?
JOHNSON: So problem with modeling of social distance, et cetera, is that the real virus – is you don’t know who we actually contact. But we do. Because we have the map, we can do a more refined version of calculating the impact of social distancing in the online world. And that means breaking some of those links or making some of those links less prominent, which is the equivalent of just staying away from your neighbor in the real world – so keeping communities – not people, but communities – apart from each other a little bit more so that leakage of distrust doesn’t spread as quickly or as far.
CHANG: Neil Johnson is a physicist at the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics at George Washington University.
Thank you very much for speaking with us today.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much.
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