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UA Little Rock researchers help identify COVID-19 misinformation and myths in new public website

A research team at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock is working to warn the public about the dangerous spread of misinformation and scams surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Nitin Agarwal, Jerry L. Maulden-Entergy Endowed Chair and Distinguished Professor of Information Science at UA Little Rock and director of the Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies (COSMOS), and his team of student researchers have created a website that educates the public about misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and provides tips on how to identify it.

“This project began after I saw an email from the Arkansas Attorney General’s office that mentioned there is a lot of misinformation about COVID-19,” Agarwal said. “I knew we could leverage our years of work and research in misinformation to help our community identify the bad actors and groups who are disseminating misinformation.”

With the help of the Arkansas Research Alliance, COSMOS has partnered with the Arkansas Attorney General’s office to identify coronavirus-related misinformation and scams. This website has grown out of that partnership to offer a resource where the public can go to view websites and social media posts that have already been identified as false.

Agarwal’s students who are working on the website include Mustafa Al-Assad, Hayder Al-Rubaye, Katrin Galeano, Rick Galeano, Maryam Maleki, Thomas Marcoux, Esther Mead, Adewale Obadimu, Billy Spann, and Karen Watts.

Agarwal’s team has already identified close to 500 cases of a wide variety of coronavirus-related misinformation and scams.

“My personal favorite is the one that said if you add pepper to your food, it will help prevent or cure you from the COVID-19,” Agarwal said. “I was laughing when I read this. There is another claim that states that orange peels will make you immune to the disease. Another man created an alcohol-based hookah. His argument is that washing our hands with alcohol kills coronavirus germs, so alcohol should also cleanse our body from the coronavirus. That was an interesting, unsubstantiated solution. People are becoming very innovative.”

While some might consider the false claims to be relatively harmless, Agarwal warns that they are not all fun and games. There are plenty of scammers trying to steal the stimulus checks meant to help people while the economy is down. Fake cures can put a person’s health at risk. Meanwhile, other false claims are made with a political agenda in mind.

“The motivation for spreading misinformation is monetization or to provoke hysteria. There are so many conspiracy theories, such as the U.S. Army manufactured the coronavirus,” Agarwal said. “Another theory is that the rich elites have created the virus to suppress the poor, which is coming from pro-Russian sources. Such narratives are not surprising as we are getting closer to the U.S. presidential election because we have seen polarizing narratives before during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. These theories are completely unsubstantiated. They are only going to get worse.”

Esther Mead, a doctoral student in information quality who lives in Sheridan, is one of the student researchers who searches for coronavirus-related misinformation as well as valid sources to debunk the information.

“I’ve been passionate about this project since its inception,” Mead said. “During the first months of the COVID-19 crisis, I became extremely concerned with the amount of misinformation that was being disseminated across various social media platforms, and the intense speed of its propagation. I was hearing the misinformation being spread via word-of-mouth in my community, and I knew that I needed to do something to help stop it by communicating the truth in a very publicly accessible way.”

Unlike other misinformation campaigns that Agarwal has studied that are usually limited to a particular geographic region of the world, the spread of COVID-19 misinformation is rampant and hard to contain due to the fact that it is a global event.

“Misinformation is actually worse than the pandemic itself,” Agarwal said. “As cases rise exponentially, so do the cases of misinformation. It’s hard to track because they can rise in the dark corners of the internet and spread through multiple platforms. For misinformation, you can’t just shut down the internet.”

Since Agarwal is well aware that his team can’t investigate all of the misinformation claims, the website also provides nearly 50 tips on how people can identify misinformation scams related to the coronavirus. A big warning sign is if people ask for financial information or your social security number.

People who are unsure if what they are seeing online is true or false can submit the website to the COSMOS team, who will investigate the case, and then post it on the website for public review.

One of the student researchers who manages the COVID-19 website, Thomas Marcoux, a computer and information science doctoral student from France, said he is happy to help keep the public safe and informed from online threats during a pandemic.

“Our main goal with this project is to provide the community with a convenient, centralized resource for them to fact check the stories they might come across,” Marcoux said. “We also relay advice from official sources on topics such as fraud protection and online security in an effort to protect the community against those seeking to profit from the panic and confusion ensuing from the pandemic. It has been a great honor to be a part of this effort and to do our part for the community.”