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Study finds correlation between COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter and COVID-19 cases

Amir Masoud Forati
COVID-19 misinformation map.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geography researchers found a direct connection in places with an increased spread of COVID-19 misinformation and spikes in COVID-19 cases weeks later.

Rina Ghose, a professor of geography and urban studies along with two students, Rachel Hansen a master's student, and Amir Forati, a doctoral student of geography, recently found a link between Twitter misinformation and places where COVID-19 cases increased.

The researchers scrolled through hundreds of thousands of Tweets from May to July of 2020 related to the pandemic. Then, mapped out major themes of misinformation around the country. They hope their findings will push policymakers to monitor misinformation, especially when it comes to national public health.

"[Geography] studies the earth and the places and the people who live on them. It is a very multidisciplinary approach, it connects the natural sciences with the social sciences. And it has a unique information systems called GIS ... geographic information systems," says Ghose.

Ghose explains that with this system, data can be added to compute a visual representation on a map. "It is a unique computer information systems that has visual and database component. The visual component displays the earth, and all its locations and all types of data attached to it."

The researchers collected over 100,000 tweets and categorized them in four different ways. Forati says one theme focused on major politically charged content in regards to COVID-19. Another theme looked at misinformation surrounding the virus and the related illness. References to religious beliefs in regard to COVID-19 and rhetoric that prioritized personal freedom over public health where screened as well.

"We categorized all of the tweets into these four themes. And then from there, we analyzed location propagation and distribution of these themes and how they correlate to location," says Forati.

The research found that sites of COVID-19 disinformation on Twitter usually saw a surge in the virus. "We determined where Twitter misinformation about COVID-19 originated during a specific time period. The tweets are geotagged, meaning the locations of origin are known. We could correlate that with COVID-19 incidents and death rate at those locations several weeks later," says Ghose.

Misinformation was widespread across the county, Forati says, and Wisconsin had a moderate number of misinformation in comparison to other states. Wisconsin's misinformation mostly involved freedom rhetoric, which means most people held the sentiment that their personal and economic freedom was more important than caring about the safety of the public health.

"They were prioritizing individual freedom over public safety and economic liberty over public safety. Those were the main topics of misinformation in Wisconsin," Forati says.

The study started when lockdown began. Ghose says she was motivated by discussions that were held in her classroom and the research her team has done has tremendous social benefits.

"Essentially, unless some policy intervention happens, what we will see is a continuation of these things and as we already find, such misinformation can hurt people's health and well being,"Ghose says.

She admits that social media has not been studied as much as other media, like for example print and it can be dangerous to people's well-being. Ghose says the research is continuing because the pandemic is ongoing and social media continues to flourish with misinformation about the pandemic.

"Our goal is that, again, the research ... reaches both the people and the policymakers, so that there is awareness of the impacts of misinformation, propagated by social media, on individuals," Ghose says.

Mallory Cheng was a Lake Effect producer from 2021 to 2023.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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