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COVID Pandemic Leads SDSU-IV Prof to Study Media Misinformation

IMPERIAL COUNTY — The ever-changing onslaught of news concerning the novel coronavirus can seem daunting to anyone, but for some it creates an air of mistrust of the media, politics, and science.

That’s precisely what San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus professor Linda Abarbanell is interested in, as she looks at society’s “new normal” through the polarizing lens of misinformation in the media related to COVID-19.

Abarbanell, who has a Ph.D. in cross-cultural cognitive psychology, is planning a study for the fall at the Calexico campus that delves into people’s perceptions, or rather, their misperceptions.

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“I’m interested in how people form healthcare misconceptions. With my students, we have been looking into misconceptions about cancer and other illnesses on the border. We are turning this pandemic into an opportunity to see how people form misbeliefs about illnesses,” she said.

“I have been having my students forward me examples of things they come across on social media that present possible misconceptions about COVID,” Abarbanell explained on how she is preparing for her study. She said she is having students gather articles and memes on the subject.

Abarbanell said she thinks the pandemic has created a rift in the public eye between science and politics.

SDSU-IV Professor to Study Media Misinformation
San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus professor Linda Abarbanell is studying society’s “new normal” through the polarizing lens of misinformation in the media related to COVID-19. | COURTESY PHOTO

“Science is always political. In the philosophy of the scientific method, the concept of science is objective and there is always some sense of subjectivity in the cases we look at. In this instance, at a widespread level, there has been mistrust about science itself,” she said.

“In the research about COVID, we won’t know about everything yet. There are a lot of revisions and the public is seeing these revisions and developing mistrust when looking at two different articles that contradict each other. They lose trust in science,” she added.

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“In general in our society, there is a sense of mistrust and a lack of confidence in institutions and that has been severely undermined for a variety of reasons, and because of that there is a belief that knowledge from science is the same as knowledge from anywhere else,” Abarbanell continued.

The professor highlighted an unavoidable reality about understanding COVID-19:

“Reasons people are liable to have misconceptions is that viruses themselves are non-visible; we can’t see it with the human eye without special instruments (and that) makes people more susceptible to mixed emotions because they don’t understand what it is. Like with the 5G conspiracy, electricity can’t cause a virus.”

Abarbanell is referring to the conspiracy that began in early March that purports the rollout of faster 5G internet is either causing or accelerating the spread of the coronavirus.

Conspiracy theories become prevalent with the onset of disease or epidemic because people tend to engage in “correlation thinking, where our brains are looking for a regularity in our society,” Abarbanell explained.  

“Many believe in conspiracy theories about 5G network, or Bill Gates and a group of elites controlling the world and insert a vaccine to control people. It seems to be a common trope that there is some group that is controlling the world and that might take different shapes or forms in different countries,” she said.

“Different beliefs are more prevalent in some cultures than others. It is an open question to see the exchange across the border and how the bicultural environment at the border will see exchanges of information,” she said.

The relatively recent invention of “fake news” has helped to dwindle trust in the media as well, Abarbanell said.

“What happens in our society (is) people feel that everything is fake, and anybody’s opinion is valid, and people have lost their trust completely in the media and science and politics,” she said. “The sense of how knowledge in science is established through the process of the scientific method” has been eroded.

El Centro resident Robert Estala identifies himself as a Constitutional Libertarian, believing in the right to complete freedom from the state. Estala is inclined to entertain conspiracy theories, and in many ways is just the type of person to whom Abarbanell is referring.

“For me, (the plot around COVID-19) it’s more of a political attack out of desperation to remove Trump from office. Blaming the economic attacks, blaming everything he does, is delivered by the media,” Estala said.

“Mainstream media is a joke. It’s all agenda-driven. It’s ratings, it’s money. You get a lot of misinformation and people take it is fact,” he said.

“The media as a whole is consumed with COVID-19, trying to maintain that fear factor. I’m not personally too concerned with COVID-19. One of the things the media is not emphasizing on is, who is infected by this. How many of the fatalities are people who had pre-existing conditions?” Estala said.

Meanwhile, Abarbanell explained how people can proactively search for accurate news.

“You need to be skeptical of things in science, the media and society. But there is a scientific method. The media goes through an extensive process of checking sources and vetting information before going to press. There is a method of gathering data, doing experiments, and vetting the information through peer review. It is the best process we have for gaining the best sense of an objective reality and the way it happens,” she said.

Abarbanell also spoke of the innate problem of gathering information on social media.

“You can lie with statistics by presenting accurate data the way you choose to explain it because it will promote different reactions in people. People tend to ignore data or confirmation bias. We have a tendency to only read what fits into our world view. We are friends with people that believe what we do and block people that disagree with us, so people only see information that supports their prior beliefs,” she added.

The professor’s study will be in two parts. First, it will look at the type of language and presentation that is used in the media. The second part will be more experimental and look at factors that make people more likely to believe misinformation, both important facets and key to why Abarbanell wanted to do the study in the first place.

“Initially, I was interested in misconceptions about the virus itself. Looking what the misconceptions are and how they are spread through different linguistic divisions and what makes those misconceptions effective, like faulty metaphors intentionally or unintentionally can create misconception, using sensationalist language. Types of urban legends and things that get more readily transmitted are things that are highly emotional (such as) fear, disgust or useful information to guide people’s information,” Abarbanell explained.


This story is featured in the May 21, 2020 e-Edition.

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