Cognitive Cybersecurity Miniseries Guest Speaker: Dr. David Broniatowski
Misinformation and Misinterpretation: Informing Responses to Foreign and Domestic Manipulation of the Vaccine Debate
Dr. David Broniatowski
Associate Director, Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics
Director, Decision Making and Systems Architecture Laboratory
George Washington University
Years before the COVID-19 pandemic, public debates about vaccination and other public health topics have served as vectors for foreign and domestic disinformation (i.e., intentional misinformation). Recently, the World Health Organization declared an "infodemic" around COVID-19 drawing special concern to the way that increased attention to the pandemic promotes misinformation spread. Attempts to combat this "misinfodemic" frequently focus on false facts or conspiracy theories. Beyond these well-studied tactics, misinformation, and especially disinformation, often manipulates contextualized interpretations rather than facts. In this talk, I discuss a body of empirically-supported work establishing the tactics and narrative tropes used by several actors -- including "Russian trolls", anti-vaccine advocates, and spambot operators -- within the ongoing vaccine debate, and provide theoretically-motivated and empirically-supported principles -- based on the psychology of human memory -- for combating online misinformative misinterpretations. Analysis suggests that many of these actors use a combination of falsehoods, conspiracy theories, emotionally arousing content, and decontextuliazed truths when promoting their agendas, with the anti-vaccine discourse increasingly emphasizing values of freedom of choice and civil liberties, rather than false facts. To encourage choices to vaccinate, I present results suggesting that messages communicating a "gist" or clear bottom-line interpretation -- seem to drive choices in other health contexts (e.g., antibiotic overprescription), and may be more likely to go viral online.