Current Awardee

The War on Professional Expertise: The Global Spread of Online Myths about Medicine and Health

Brant Houston
Brant Houston

College: Media
Award year: 2019-2020
NCSA collaborators: Loretta Auvil

The spread of dubious or downright false information (sometimes referred to as "fake news") is a growing social, cultural and scientific dilemma, and the situation is especially troubling when it comes to information about medicine and public health. The most recent manifestation of the real world consequences of dubious medical information is the spread of measles and its link to anti-vaccination websites and memes. But that is only the most recent manifestation—others include the peddling of conspiracy theories and fake cancer cures, organized misinformation about stem cell research, and the spread of dubious claims about alternative medicines. There is further evidence that some of this dubious information is deliberately produced for financial gain or to fuel cultural discord.

The purpose of this project is to examine the routes through which medical misinformation spreads in the news and social media. The research will examine medical misinformation in four areas; (1) vaccinations, (2) cancer cures, (3) the spread of the Ebola virus, and (4) the safety of contraception. Misinformation is defined as information that is publicly available and disseminated that is not supported or actively contrary to established medical advice. For this fellowship, we will use the considerable news resources of the Cline Center archive and then use the resources and expertise of NCSA to (1) explore methods for searching and applying models to identify relevant new articles on our selected healthcare topics, (2) develop a model for identifying dubious and false information in these articles, (3) rendering the data suitable for quantitative analysis, and (4) aiding the principal investigators in conducting the analysis. The pilot research from this fellowship will form the basis for a much larger research grant to be submitted to the Knight Foundation or the National Institutes of Health.