Moving Enough People Enough

Assessing the Effectiveness of Disinformation Through the Adoption of Disinformation Rhetoric

by Erik Van Hegewald

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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

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Theoretical Foundation and Summary of Relevant Literature

  • Chapter Three

    Community Selection

  • Chapter Four

    Lexical Analysis Methods and Results

  • Chapter Five

    Effectiveness of Disinformation

  • Chapter Six

    Doctrine, Practice, and Application

  • Appendix A

    Behavioral and Psychological Theories

  • Appendix B

    Nearest Neighbors and Variable Omission Test

  • Appendix C

    Dimensions Used for Population Comparison

  • Appendix D

    Query Used in Brandwatch

  • Appendix E

    Investigations Into the Anomalies and Surrounding Media Environments

  • Appendix F

    Synthetic Counterfactual Assumptions and Results of Other States

  • Appendix G

    Other Charts for Non-COVID Vaccine Behavioral Data

  • Appendix H

    Vaccine Intent Figures

  • Appendix I


Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in August 2023 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in Public Policy Analysis at thePardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Dr. William Marcelino (chair), Dr. Chris Paul, and Dr. Matthew Simpson.

This publication is part of the RAND Corporation Dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.