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UMSI faculty awarded Mercury Project grant to fight health disinformation

Wednesday, 11/30/2022

Health disinformation plagues humanity, hindering responses to global health emergencies and disease outbreaks. Three researchers from the University of Michigan School of Information, have been awarded a grant to target health disinformation that spreads on social media networks.

The grant is part of the Mercury Project, a program overseen by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). Launched in 2021, the Mercury Project will provide $7.2 million in funding to 12 teams working in 17 countries. The initial grants will last three years. 

Associate professors Eric Gilbert, Ceren Budak, and Sarita Schoenebeck will join an international cohort of researchers who are combating the impacts of mis- and disinformation on public health and finding interventions that support the spread and uptake of accurate health information. 

“The goal of this project is to identify users who spread a large amount of health misinformation, and to try to slow down the spread of that misinformation,” says Schoenebeck. 

“Our strategy is to intervene in the social network structure – who people follow online – rather than to try to remove content or ban users who spread it,” she says. “We see this as a complementary effort to existing strategies, including platform interventions and regulatory oversight, which have both struggled to reduce health misinformation.” 

Two U-M alums are also conducting research for the Mercury Project: Charles Senteio, UMSI PhD in Health Informatics (‘15) who is now an associate professor at Rutgers University, and Neil Lewis, Jr., U-M PhD in Social Psychology (‘17) who is now an assistant professor at Cornell University.

Combating the spread of misinformation

Over the past few years, there has been a growing concern over the spread and prevalence of misinformation surrounding public health. The World Health Organization characterized the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as an “infodemic,” noting that misinformation spread can be as dangerous to human health and security as the pandemic itself. 

Misinformation tends to be concentrated in a small number of originators, from whom it can spread, says Gilbert. “That presents an opportunity because there are just a small number of possible intervention points that could make a big difference.”

SSRC issued a call for proposals to counter the growing global threats posed by public health mis- and disinformation and low Covid-19 vaccination rates. They received nearly 200 submissions from around the world. 

“The large volume of high-quality proposals submitted to the Mercury Project underscores just how eager the social and behavioral science community is to evaluate interventions to increase vaccination demand and build healthier information environments,” said Anna Harvey, president of SSRC

An inaugural cohort of 12 teams were chosen for the Mercury Project. Funding for their work comes from a generous contribution from The Rockefeller Foundation, and substantial contributions from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

SSRC carefully selected interdisciplinary, interinstitutional, and international teams to create a network that can work in coordination and generate much-needed new research on locally tailored solutions to combat Covid-19 vaccine misinformation and low vaccination take-up around the world. 

In late August, the Mercury Project had their kickoff conference to bring all the researchers together and meet with policymakers to help make their designs stronger and usable to the global health policy community. Each month the SSRC plans on bringing Mercury Project participants together either virtually or in-person to support co-learning, coordination, and constructive feedback on their projects.

UMSI joins the Mercury Project

“Several teams of social and behavioral scientists are exploring how to leverage social networks to improve the flow of accurate information and positive social signaling around topics such as Covid vaccination while, in some cases, building information-literacy skills,” says Heather Lanthorn, program director of the Mercury Project at SSRC, and U-M master’s alumna from the School of Public Health. 

“Eric and his team bring an important dimension into the first Mercury Project cohort,” Lanthorn says. The UMSI team will focus on targeting health misinformation networks, focusing on social media websites. “Meta, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media websites have struggled to make effective governance decisions on behalf of billions of users every day, and misinformation continues to run rampant,” said the authors in their project summary. 

Lanthorn says misinformation super-spreaders “have a core of ardent followers, the majority of people don’t know they are following a purveyor of mis- or disinformation.” The UMSI team will target the whole network around these super-spreaders, and disrupt the dissemination of inaccurate information. 

The proposed interventions the UMSI creates will build off past information-centric research, says Budak. “Our goal is to identify the conditions under which individuals are willing to break ties with spreaders of misinformation,” she says. “We hope that severing ties will have a longer lasting impact on exposure to misinformation–particularly accidental exposure by less entrenched individuals.”

Budak says that their interventions can be deployed by the platforms themselves or by third-parties. She notes that the team will test how effective their strategies are, which can ultimately help determine which mechanism to use for slowing misinformation spread.  


Learn more about associate professors Eric Gilbert, Ceren Budak, and Sarita Schoenebeck.

Read more about the Mercury Project