A new UK research project will examine the spread of misinformation and fake news about the Covid-19 pandemic on social media platforms, and the erosion of trust in authority.
Academics at Birmingham City University’s (UK) Institute of Media and English have been awarded £77k from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to explore the prevalence of false and unverified information about coronavirus and how such news is spread on Twitter. An additional £19k of funding will be provided by the University.
The six-month project has been launched in response to a major increase in misinformation spread through unverified tweets, memes and articles which have been linked to assaults, arson and deaths.
Using specially developed linguistic software, researchers will wade through hundreds of thousands of posts, links and images on Twitter to find out how misinformation and ‘fake news’ is shared, interacted with, and spread more widely.
Two case studies will also be produced to detail the public reception of official messaging from government and public health leaders, and assess the correlation between misinformation and trust in authority.
The project will produce a publicly available dashboard to show how misinformation is spread across social media, and the findings will be reported to government agencies to help inform future policy.
Dr Andrew Kehoe is leading the five-strong team of researchers working on the project. Dr Kehoe said: “Clear communication is vital during major crises such as the current pandemic, but this is not always easy to get right. What makes it even more of a challenge nowadays is the rapid spread of misinformation online: the so-called ‘infodemic’.
“We want to bring our linguistic expertise to this problem to explore the specific words, phrases and hashtags used in tweets about Covid, as well as on websites they link to. Our project dashboard will present our findings visually as graphs and maps showing the networks of people through which misinformation is shared, and how this has changed as the pandemic has progressed.”
Communication has been at the heart of responses to the pandemic, with the UK government focussing on ‘three-pronged’ key messages. However, misleading and false information has led to increased challenges to messaging and non-compliance with guidelines in some instances.
Despite government and health officials acknowledging that social media monitoring and analysis has a key role to play in controlling crises, there is currently no user-friendly tool available for investigating misinformation about Covid-19 spread on social media.
The research will foster links with major organisations, including the BBC, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, community media groups, and legal policy strategists to enhance the scope of its investigation.