Cross-Disciplinary Research to Quantify Evolution, Spread of Misinformation

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences researchers were awarded $1.86 million to study how misinformation spreads between groups and across social media platforms.

October 2, 2020

stock image laptop

GW researchers were award a three-year, $1.86 million grant to study how misinformation evolves and spreads online across different communities (stock image)

By Kristen Mitchell

When two George Washington University researchers came up with an idea to study how misinformation evolves and spreads online across different communities, the concept was mostly a thought experiment. Today, in the midst of a global public health crisis, a contentious presidential election cycle, economic volatility and growing demand for social change, their research seeks to explore an ongoing and urgent challenge.  

Physics professor Neil Johnson and his collaborator Yonatan Lupu, associate professor of political science, have been awarded a three-year, $1.86 million Minerva Research Initiative grant, a Department of Defense award that supports research in social and behavioral science. There is an option for funding to be extended to more than $3 million over five years. 

“This award was never something I’d ever thought would be possible for someone like me in physics to go for. It’s a very big initiative that takes academia into the real world to attack the kinds of challenges that Congress is interested in,” Dr. Johnson said. “This is an amazing opportunity to do integrated, cross-disciplinary work that is high profile in terms of policy impact.”

Dr. Johnson, who broadly researches complex systems, likens the online social ecosystem where misinformation thrives to a network of forests, located in proximity to one another but distinct. Events that fuel societal tension act like a match, creating fires. Those fires can be contained in one forest or quickly spread, depending on the conditions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the 2020 presidential election are three real-world events that have acted as matches on social media, Dr. Johnson said. These distinct events have become coupled, together influencing multiple facets of life in the United States. The researchers are interested in quantifying what happens if you suddenly have a crisis in one system, such as the health system, and that creates a crisis in another system, such as the economic system, and how misinformation or information out of context ebbs and flows between the two spheres.

“This was designed pre-COVID, so a year ago it sounded very fanciful. Unfortunately now it couldn’t be more relevant,” Dr. Johnson said. “These are real world events that feed into what's going on online, which then feeds back into real world events. So we need to unravel this.”

The researchers theorize that what transports the spark from one place to another is amplified or helped by social media, Dr. Johnson said. There are links between these online communities on different platforms that can be strengthened by real-world events. As part of this work, researchers want to better understand how extremist and fringe communities form and grow online, and how social media platforms, governments and other actors can best mitigate these problems.

This project builds on Dr. Johnson’s prior research that mapped how hate spread online across multiple social media platforms, countries and languages, and how communities on Facebook that distrust establishment health guidance effectively reach and engage individuals. Dr. Johnson described these findings as “pieces of the larger puzzle” he hadn’t thought to consider putting together until now. 

Dr. Lupu, who researches political violence and human rights, said the types of online misinformation the team studies are inherently political. He is interested in learning more about how misinformation is used in conjunction with political narratives online, and how certain actors or groups use misinformation to target others. 

“Misinformation online has been a problem, it was a problem in the 2016 election, but now it's a problem that is specific to a very tangible public health crisis that wasn't even there when we applied for the grant,” Dr. Lupu said. “It’s a much bigger problem than we thought it would be.”

GW is an ideal institution to explore this cross-disciplinary subject, Dr. Johnson said. The team will be able to interact with researchers from the GW Program on Extremism and the GW Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics, in particular David Broniatowski from the School of Engineering and Applied Science who will act as a co-investigator on the topic of foreign influence surrounding health and political misinformation. They also will work closely with undergraduate and graduate student researchers who will contribute to the project.

In June, Dr. Lupu and Dr. Johnson were awarded a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to explore COVID-19 and misinformation. The project analyzes the weaponization of COVID-19 misinformation by online hate communities. Preliminary research shows that misinformation about COVID-19 has been used to purposely target certain racial, religious and ethnic groups in the hope that individuals will believe the misinformation and, in turn, suffer greater harm from the disease. Dr. Lupu said he expects to see this play out in the coming months relating to a potential vaccine as hate groups try to discourage certain groups from getting inoculated based on their identity.