CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While the nation has been coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, it also has faced an “infodemic” – a crisis of communication about the pandemic, as well as election security, racism, immigration and climate change.
The Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is launching a yearlong initiative on “Conspiracy, Misinformation and the Infodemic” that will bring together faculty members from across campus and experts from other institutions to discuss misinformation, disinformation, “fake news” and conspiracy theories.
May Berenbaum, the new CAS director and the head of the entomology department, said she would like the center to diversify its mission to include a broader range of activities to serve campus needs.
“I was inspired by how people with expertise across campus organically came together to address the pressing needs of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Berenbaum said. “Maybe this is a model for what CAS can do as part of its mission to support a culture of learning across the campus and community. There is a lot of expertise concentrated in the center from across campus and we’ve long had convening power to bring groups together in pursuit of knowledge.”
She and CAS Deputy Director Masumi Iriye will oversee the new initiative to combat the crisis of misinformation.
In a series of talks during the fall semester – all of which will take place on Zoom – faculty members will address historical examples of the spread of misinformation; the dissemination of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic; the credibility and the role of journalism in communicating information; how misinformation about political issues is spread on a local level through social media; and how misperceptions about the processes of science shape societal views of scientific knowledge.
“It’s not like this phenomenon is new. Throughout the history of humankind there have been conspiracy theories if people don’t like what the government is doing or the society they are living in,” Iriye said. “As soon as people began to congregate in social groups, there’s been conspiracy and misinformation.”
The initiative will begin with a Sept. 30 discussion, “Tracking and Network Analysis of the Spread of Misinformation Regarding COVID-19.” It will include faculty members from sociology, journalism, accountancy, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and information sciences.
Berenbaum is the editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She saw a seismic shift in research toward COVID-19-related issues in 2020, but there hasn’t been a shift of similar magnitude in research on the infodemic, she said.
“It seemed profoundly ironic that the scientific community could, within less than a year, come up with and evaluate astonishingly effective vaccines, but at the same time couldn’t convince a significant segment of the population to take them,” Berenbaum said. “There is an equally urgent need to disseminate useful information in a reliable way to as large an audience as possible. We know how to make vaccines better than we know how to get people to accept them.”
She said faculty members can provide useful information that helps people overcome their difficulties analyzing information. For example, people are bad at risk assessment, making it easier for them to believe conspiracy theories that play on their fears.
The spring semester presentations will focus to a greater extent on science and the science of communication. Berenbaum said she hopes to model them on the U. of I.’s COV-Course, a series of discussions in the 2020 fall semester that addressed issues related to the pandemic from a multidisciplinary perspective.
“I hope we can shine a light on campus resources and convene people to help the general public understand this phenomenon,” Berenbaum said. “It’s not just COVID. We really need to know more about how people process information and communicate risks.”