UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Hoaxes, lies and other misinformation have been around for centuries. Their recent ability to spread at lightning speed has media researchers studying how inaccurate information circulates and how to combat its harmful effects.
Brian Southwell is an expert in science communication whose work combines research from a number of areas, including public health, psychology, political science and environmental science. He specifically targets the public’s understanding of science, and he will discuss that and other topics at noon April 18 in Foster Auditorium in Penn State’s Paterno Library. His talk is titled “The Peril and Persistence of Misinformation.”
Despite its long history, misinformation has fostered additional issues in the digital age. Research shows that people tend to believe information — whether true or false — when they first encounter it. Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to change the minds of readers and viewers once they’ve taken in the information.
Most media don’t have a system to prevent misinformation from spreading and it takes a lot of time and resources to debunk misinformation once it has received wide exposure.
“The biggest example is climate change denial, but you have athletes and celebrities saying untrue things to a large audience and influencing health behavior, too. That’s pretty big,” said Jessica Myrick, associate professor in the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies. “We are beginning to develop strategies for combating this and that’s what Brian is going to talk about.”
Southwell, who is the director of science in the public sphere at RTI International, conducts research to better understand why and how misinformation spreads, which also can help researchers understand how to stop it from spreading. He says while programs that label “fake news” or “bad ads” are commendable, they can’t prevent false stories from appearing on the air or in a news feed — and once information is out, it’s difficult to reel it back in.
This is why Southwell is a proponent of building media literacy, which is a better understanding of the features that go into any media message. He says it’s up to science communicators to create messages for wide audiences that are understandable. It’s important for the accurate messages to receive the same level of exposure as the misinformation — a goal much easier said than done.
The lecture will feature research from the book “Misinformation and Mass Audiences.” The book builds on a special issue of the Journal of Communication that targets misinformation, and it was recently featured in American Scientist magazine. Southwell edited the book, which was published in January.
Southwell is an adjunct professor with Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute. He also is a research professor in media and journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His work has appeared in more than 100 journal articles and he hosts a weekly social science radio show/podcast called “The Measure of Everyday Life.”
Southwell’s talk is a part of the SciComm Lecture series, an initiative of Penn State’s Science Communication Program. The program is housed in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and builds productive research collaborations between scientists in a variety of disciplines with science communications researchers.