Damage from the COVID-19 pandemic has been amplified by the accompanying “infodemic” of false and misleading online information. To date, most efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 misinformation have been largely unsuccessful as they retroactively attempt to correct false narratives only after they have extensively spread online. A new collaborative effort between Battelle, the Ohio State University, and Northwestern University, sponsored by a $1 million grant from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), aims to address this problem by assessing the risk of COVID-19 misinformation in near real time.
The team’s investigators represent diverse backgrounds, including Cyber Trust and Analytics (Katie Liszewski and David Collins, Battelle), Mathematics (Joseph Tien, OSU), Social Networks (Robert Bond, OSU), Communication (Erik Nisbet, Northwestern), and Public Policy (Samuel Malloy, OSU). According to Erik Nisbet, Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis and Communication, this is the strength of the team.
“There have been many efforts to track and mitigate misinformation, but this initiative is truly unique due to its combination of multiple approaches from network science, social media analytics, and computational linguistics, and an understanding of the psychology behind its spread and influence,” said Nisbet, who runs the Center for Communication & Public Policy (CCPP) in the School of Communication at Northwestern. The mission of CCPP is to promote interdisciplinary communication scholarship informing public policy across a variety of social, political, international, health, science and environmental policy domains. Nisbet’s work on the project began at OSU prior to joining Northwestern.
Katie Liszewski, a cybersecurity engineer, explained that the approach uses programs that can identify misinformation across multiple languages.
“These tools track the potential of new misinformation spreading through influential groups to the general public and eliminates the need to exhaustively catalog the millions of tweets, posts, and likes generated every day,” she said. “The approach will enable decision makers and spokespeople to quickly craft public service announcements to counter dangerous misinformation without causing information fatigue.”
Development of this concept began when COVID-19 was first reported in the United States, and the collaboration was initially funded internally by both Battelle and the Ohio State Office of Research. Now the project will be funded by IARPA, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which invests in high-risk, high-payoff research programs to tackle some of the most difficult challenges of the agencies and disciplines in the Intelligence Community.
“In a rapidly changing, high-volume social media landscape, our goal is to identify misleading or false content that is on the brink of becoming widespread and that would pose outsized risk to public health if it did become widely disseminated,” said Sam Malloy, Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy in Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs. “This is a critical step in prioritizing mitigation efforts and can facilitate a more targeted approach to combating the ‘infodemic’.”
Every day, the people of Battelle apply science and technology to solving what matters most. At major technology centers and national laboratories around the world, Battelle conducts research and development, designs and manufactures products, and delivers critical services for government and commercial customers. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio since its founding in 1929, Battelle serves the national security, health and life sciences, and energy and environmental industries. For more information, visit www.battelle.org.
About Ohio State Battelle Center
Ohio State Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy is part of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. Started from a generous endowment from Battelle in 2006, Ohio State Battelle Center has gone through many iterations in the technology and policy arena, the most recent starting in 2017 with the arrival of executive director, Dr. Elizabeth Newton. Today, Ohio State Battelle Center focuses on connecting policymakers with scientists and engineers to make sense of complex technical information, anticipate the challenges ahead, and solve wicked problems. Through research and professional development programming, Ohio State Battelle Center aims to tackle challenges that require multiple disciplines while preparing students to be innovative in the public interest.