Disinformation, capturing headlines and permeating the spheres of research and politics, has evolved into an issue potentially influencing the daily lives of nearly anyone connected to the internet. The COVID-19 pandemic was by all measures, a novel event, but with a corresponding information vacuum, and a subsequent surge of disinformation. The actual effectiveness of this disinformation, however, remains a lingering question.
This dissertation assesses the effects of COVID-19 disinformation narratives on behavioral outcomes, particularly vaccine uptake and ivermectin consumption. By analyzing Twitter rhetoric of users from Kansas and Nebraska, I quantified the "dosage" of disinformation and assessed its impact on changes in discourse, vaccine uptake, and ivermectin consumption. This research provides initial empirical evidence that exposure to disinformation can prompt an observable change in individual rhetoric, subsequently leading to changes in behavior. Additional key findings indicate COVID-19 disinformation had limited effectiveness in changing vaccination outcomes but potentially more pronounced impacts in areas where individuals lack strongly held beliefs such as ivermectin consumption. Importantly, this research also suggests an ability for even a minor event to trigger small shifts in behavior and sentiment, crossing thresholds to ultimately generate to significant changes in outcome — a phenomenon I term as "effects on the margin". However, for an event to spur a major shift in rhetoric and subsequent behavior the presence of three critical conditions were required: volume, language resonance, and the capacity of the event to permeate through topic adjacent conversations.
The study recommends that organizations and governments establish frameworks to assess their own threat thresholds, maintain "informational firebreaks" using some of the already existing methods to counter disinformation, and continue implementing policies and programs such as lotteries to encourage desired behavior. The study concludes that while disinformation poses a societal threat, its impact is not as severe as headlines convey. However, efforts must continue to counter disinformation and mitigate future risks.
Table of Contents
Theoretical Foundation and Summary of Relevant Literature
Lexical Analysis Methods and Results
Effectiveness of Disinformation
Doctrine, Practice, and Application
Behavioral and Psychological Theories
Nearest Neighbors and Variable Omission Test
Dimensions Used for Population Comparison
Query Used in Brandwatch
Investigations Into the Anomalies and Surrounding Media Environments
Synthetic Counterfactual Assumptions and Results of Other States
Other Charts for Non-COVID Vaccine Behavioral Data
Vaccine Intent Figures