Disrupting the COVID-19 Misinfodemic With Network Interventions

Network Solutions for Network Problems

Lindsay E. Young, PhD; Emily Sidnam-Mauch, PhD; Marlon Twyman, PhD; Liyuan Wang, MA; Jackie Jingyi Xu, MCG; Matthew Sargent, PhD; Thomas W. Valente, PhD; Emilio Ferrara, PhD; Janet Fulk, PhD; Peter Monge, PhD

Disclosures

Am J Public Health. 2021;111(3):514-519. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, a highly troublesome influx of viral misinformation threatens to exacerbate the crisis through its deleterious effects on public health outcomes and health behavior decisions.

This "misinfodemic" has ignited a surge of ongoing research aimed at characterizing its content, identifying its sources, and documenting its effects. Noticeably absent as of yet is a cogent strategy to disrupt misinformation.

We start with the premise that the diffusion and persistence of COVID-19 misinformation are networked phenomena that require network interventions. To this end, we propose five classes of social network intervention to provide a roadmap of opportunities for disrupting misinformation dynamics during a global health crisis. Collectively, these strategies identify five distinct yet interdependent features of information environments that present viable opportunities for interventions.

Introduction

Amid the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, an insidious epidemic of misinformation has emerged, which we hereafter refer to as a "misinfodemic."[1] Like the virus itself, the propagation of false information about COVID-19 is a networked phenomenon. Although the broadcast of misinformation does not always occur via online platforms,[2] its widespread dissemination and amplification is fueled by a networked communication environment that enables rapid peer-to-peer sharing of top-down and user-generated content. Coupled with mounting public uncertainty about the virus itself and frustration with occasionally inconsistent guidance and policies from national and local authorities (e.g., mask wearing),[3] this sociotechnical environment has become an incubator for the spread of misinformation. No matter its form—unverified (i.e., information that is unconfirmed), misleading (i.e., information that misrepresents or skews facts), or wholly fabricated (i.e., falsehoods)—COVID-19 misinformation has compounded the crisis through its deleterious effects on health behavior and policy decisions.

This situation has ignited a surge of ongoing research to characterize the content of this misinfodemic, to identify its sources, and to document its effects.[4–7] Although such research efforts are critical for sharpening our understanding of the misinfodemic, thus far proposals are missing cogent strategies to disrupt the misinfodemic. To this end, we take as our starting premise that network problems like this misinfodemic are best countered with network interventions. Network interventions are intentional and planned efforts to use social network mechanisms and structures to generate social influence, accelerate behavioral change, and achieve desirable outcomes among individuals, groups, organizations, and populations.[8] In what follows, we extend the seminal work of Valente[8] by proposing five classes of network-based interventions designed to disrupt the social and technological mechanisms of COVID-19 misinformation:

  1. mobilizing champions,

  2. segmenting people into groups,

  3. inducing virality,

  4. altering network dynamics, and

  5. redesigning social network platforms.

We summarize these interventions in the Box on page 515.

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