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Making Moves to Counter Misinformation

Communication Researchers Test Ways to Spread Truth During Health Crises

By Maryland Today Staff

Repeated COVID/megaphone illustration

Risk communication experts at UMD and the University of Georgia are collaborating with the FDA to develop methods to cut through dangerous misinformation during health crises such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Illustration by Stocksy

While the world contended with a pandemic, social media platforms and other sources spewed billions of misleading health messages at users—more than 3.8 billion times on Facebook over the course of a year, according to one study—a dynamic that University of Maryland researchers and their colleagues say can lead to adverse public health outcomes ranging from mistrust in reliable information sources to deaths from disease.

Now, these risk communication experts in the Department of Communication and at the University of Georgia (UGA) are collaborating with researchers at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop and test messaging strategies that can help overcome misinformation during public health emergencies.

Supported by a three-year, nearly $225,000 award from the FDA, communication Professor Brooke Fisher Liu and Yan Jin, professor of public relations and Georgia Athletic Association professor at UGA, will develop and test message strategies concerning vital health information that can help keep people safe.

“Past research found a clear link between COVID-19 misinformation exposure and vaccine hesitancy,” said Liu, the project’s principal investigator. “Research also connects misinformation exposure to lower compliance with government health and safety guidance. In short, misinformation is just as great of a threat to public health as the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, but our knowledge is limited on how to combat misinformation.”

The researchers will be among the first to explore how public health misinformation can be corrected through strategic risk communication and what methods work best in thwarting misinformation. They will conduct two large-scale online experiments on how messages containing misinformation and various types of corrective responses are interpreted by U.S. adults.

“This project exemplifies the importance and promising future for more collaborative risk and crisis communication research across universities and with the government to provide theory-driven, evidenced-based insights to protect public health and safety,” said Jin, co-principal investigator.

Liu and Jin’s research collaborations date back to 2001, when they both studied in the graduate program at the Missouri School of Journalism. Now they are joined by graduate research assistants Tori McDermott from UMD, and Xuerong Lu from UGA.

In addition to the experimental results, the research team will also provide a targeted deep-dive analysis of previous research, and will recommend best practices for how public health agencies can combat health misinformation for current and future threats.

This article was adapted from a news release by the University of Georgia.

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