COVID-19’s Informational Virus: Analyzing the Viral Character and Effects of Social Media Misinformation

Ali, Syed H | $308,183

Ontario York University 2020 CIHR Operating Grant

Social media is playing a central yet neglected role in the creation and spread of misinformation about COVID‑19 by confusing public understanding, fostering racism and xenophobia, and affecting the capacity of public health officials to communicate scientific facts about COVID‑19 to the general public. Without an understanding of the role that contemporary social media plays in the outbreak response, the resultant response may be of limited effectiveness. Thus, this project is based on the following research questions: how is social media-based misinformation shaping both public health and lay responses to COVID-19, and what public health strategies and public policies can be adopted to combat such misinformation and its stigmatizing social impacts? To address these questions, we will develop and apply a cutting-edge mixed-methods approach that combines big data analysis from computational social science with small data analysis from cultural and interpretive sociology. In year one, we will scientifically track misinformation about COVID‑19 on Western social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit – as well as on Chinese social media platforms – WeChat, Weibo, Tencent, and Toutiao. This will be supplemented with interviews with public health officials. In the second year, our analysis will turn towards understanding the effects of social media misinformation about COVID-19, including: xenophobia, racism and stigmatization. We focus on the following lines of investigation: (i) Social Media, Misinformation and Risk Communication in Outbreak Response; (ii) Misinformation in a Post-Truth Environment: Implications for Outbreak Response; (iii) The Role of Misinformation in the Promotion of Stigmatization, Xenophobia and Racism During the Outbreak; (iv) The Relationship of Social Media and Political Culture in Outbreak Response: A Comparison of China and Canada.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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