Fighting the COVID-19 infodemic

Tim A. Majchrzak diving into conspiracy theories and misinformation tweets from his home office.

Fighting the COVID-19 infodemic
Professor Tim A. Majchrzak blending work and family life from his home office.

Tim A. Majchrzak is professor in Information Systems at the University of Agder (UiA) in Kristiansand, Norway. His research comprises both technical and organizational aspects of Software Engineering, often in the context of Mobile Computing. He usually publishes work on interdisciplinary topics, often in the domain of crisis prevention and management.

Tim is the project management for UiA in the H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie project RISE_SMA. In this project, the stats-of-the-art of social media research for crisis and societal communication is advanced. The project takes two complementary perspectives: information extraction and information dissemination. As part of the project, Tim initiated a focus group on COVID-19 misinformation.

We spoke to Tim about his current activities.

What are you working on these days?

On the one hand, the pandemic has brought several projects to a halt, as travelling is hardly possible and in some physical meetings are essential. For example, the H2020 RISE scheme explicitly is about exchange. On the other hand, the pandemic has opened new opportunities. Thus, besides the routine work – PhD supervision, teaching preparations, institute life, my research on technological topics and the like – I have grasped that opportunity.

My feeling in March 2020 was that the pandemic was not going to end soon and that it was having negative consequences for many people – either directly for their health or indirectly through societal changes, for example as imposed by a lockdown. While I undoubtedly cannot help on the medical part, I was thinking that I ought to do something that my background in information systems and in particular the affiliation with CIEM would allow. Grasping what we did in the RISE project and applying it to the pandemic made much sense. Therefore, I initiated a focus group that would not look at the pandemic as such but at the accompanying infodemic, or more specifically, at misinformation around COVID-19.

What do you find most exciting about this topic?

Personally, I think this topic is insightful. Some misinformation, such as conspiracy theories, is just ludicrous. Much of it is subtle, though. It might fool those who do not look closely, and even well-educated, sceptical people might find their perception to be negatively altered. Moreover, the climate created by misinformation suffocates critical discussions.

Professionally, the topic offers to work at the forefront and to make contributions where little has been explored.

Besides that, it is rewarding to be able to do work that at least to a tiny bit may have a positive impact on the outcome of the crisis.

What do you see as the main knowledge gaps?

On the one-hand, social media is routinely monitored. On the other hand, social media massively contributes to the spread of misinformation. This very recently can be observed with the starting of the COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. Whether you object or support vaccinations in general, whether you think young people, or old people, or doctors, or teachers, or whoever should be vaccinated first, whether you think this will quickly end the pandemic or not, you will find confirmation on social media. We need to understand better how to reach people in “silos”, those who really are in echo chambers. For authorities, it is very hard to sustain information sovereignty in this regard; for the individual it can be cumbersome to distinguish between fact, opinion, deliberate influence, and misinformation. Therefore, I would probably not speak so much of knowledge gaps but of streams of research that need to be fostered, ranging from the technological support for social media listening and for the automated detection of misinformation to the societal impact of social media communication.

Is this a well-researched field?

Yes and no; social media analytics is a well-researched field, and papers on COVID-19 appear by the thousands these days. Yet misinformation is in no way a topic of the past. Besides the need for research I already mentioned, I think we should aim to understand what makes some of the perceived problems with misinformation to be shared among countries, while other problems seem to for example depend on the level of trust the population has in their government.

What kind of methodology and data do you use?

We have been working exploratorily so far and used data from Twitter. Colleagues in the project have also looked at Facebook and other social media. The next steps are broader, comparative works, maybe even trying to span the different “waves” of the pandemic so far.

Which colleagues and partners do you work with?

The RISE_SMA project comprises of the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, Universiteit Leiden, Netherlands, Virtimo, Germany, Kristiansand city, and UiA, as well as overseas partners, namely Queensland University of Technology, University of Sydney, Australia, Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, Brazil, and Universitas Padjadjaran, Indonesia. There are plenty of opportunities for involvement from different directions of research and practice. I happily connect people to the consortium, be they from UiA, CIEM and its network, or third parties. My CIEM colleagues involved in RISE_SMA are Ahmed Abouzeid, Bjørn Erik Munkvold, Jaziar Radianti, and Kari Anne Røysland

What are the next steps?

We have recently started to compile the results thus far and now do a round of “mix and match” to start new sub-initiatives as part of the focus group.

Finally, a personal question to conclude with: how do working days during the pandemic look for you?

The pandemic means that the typical working day does not exist currently. I have two small children; childcare is very limited and the typical support by grandparents is scaled down to meeting outside with masks on. Therefore, my wife and I are juggling to get the work done, often working in blocks dictated by our schedule of calls, and usually resuming work when it is bedtime for the children. I will not complain, though, as we manage to get work done and spend a lot of family time. Besides, so far, I only got friendly smiles when one of my daughters jumped onto my lap while I was doing a videocall.