Iowa Journalism Professor Melissa Tully receives grant to study health misinformation in Africa

UI Professor Melissa Tully has been awarded funding from the Waterhouse Family Institute at Villanova University to test ways to address COVID-19 misinformation on social media in Kenya and Senegal.
Monday, October 26, 2020

Melissa Tully, University of Iowa
Melissa Tully

As countries around the world continue to try to understand COVID-19 in the midst of the pandemic, researchers like the University of Iowa's Melissa Tully seek to combat misinformation on social media platforms about the coronavirus, vaccines, and related issues.

Tully, associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, received a $10,000 grant from the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society at Villanova University to study and mitigate the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on the WhatsApp messaging platform in Senegal and in Kenya. Tully's co-Principal Investigator is Dani Madrid-Morales, a faculty member at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication at the University of Houston.

Tully's study seeks to address key questions around existing needs for information about COVID-19 in Senegal and Kenya; what differences exist in information-seeking strategies across demographic groups; and what interventions can stop the spread of misinformation and improve people’s knowledge of the virus.

"As the pandemic has evolved, the misinformation around it has also evolved,” Tully said. “So, we will determine what the key misinformation is. We want to interview journalists and fact checkers and other media professionals to understand their professional understanding of these issues, and how they try to combat misinformation in their work,” Tully said. “And we plan to also interview a general population of social-media users.”

The researchers' project is titled “Effective strategies to counter the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp: An Experiment in Kenya and Senegal.” WhatsApp is very heavily used in Kenya, Senegal, and other African countries. The social-media platform is organized around "groups," or topical message boards on which users share content. Tully's team will use their interviews to develop interventions, such as fact-checked news stories or news-literacy promotions, to be circulated among WhatsApp groups. An experimental group will see the curated, high-quality information of the interventions, and a control group will see everyday news and information. The researchers will then test to see if the interventions encourage the experimental group in news-literacy behaviors such as verifying information or seeking additional sources.

Tully said she wants to develop the experiment based on local context, local expertise, and local needs in the two countries. Because Senegal is primarily French-speaking and in West Africa, and Kenya is primarily English-speaking in East Africa, the two countries provide for some comparative work, Tully added.

Additional funding for the project will come from the University of Houston, and Tully said she and Madrid-Morales plan to hire graduate-student researchers, including in Kenya and Senegal, and perhaps also at the researchers' institutions. Graduate students with knowledge of local Kenyan and Senegalese languages, such as Swahili or Wolof, would meet a need brought on by coronavirus-based travel restrictions.

“One of the challenges here is that we cannot go to Senegal or Kenya right now because of the pandemic,” Tully said. “So we’re going to do some interviews and things virtually, but we also want to have a team of local experts. We’re hoping to put together a team of researchers who bring the myriad types of expertise that we need to be able to pull this project off while we are in the U.S.”

Tully was already doing work in Kenya on health misinformation earlier this year when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Health misinformation and news-literacy interventions have long been a primary research interest, leading to her current focus on coronavirus.

Tully and Madrid-Morales’ research will ask experimental groups in their research not just about COVID-19, but also broader questions, such as health misinformation surrounding vaccines, and levels of trust in information that comes from health and government officials.

“The issues that we see in this country—who to trust on what you’re supposed to do for wearing masks or getting vaccinated—those issues exist in other countries but they manifest in different ways,” Tully said.

"Personal health behaviors can also affect public health," Tully said. "If someone chooses not to get vaccinated, for example, they could potentially hurt not just themselves, but the public as well. If people's decisions or behaviors are driven by false or inaccurate information on social media, someone could hurt themselves or their loved ones."

Health information is a matter of trying to explain to people the scientific method, and that they should trust the best expert advice available at any given time.

“And the thing that’s really difficult about health information is that science changes,” Tully said. “Science is never stagnant. The way that science works and scientific development works — it’s marred with uncertainty by its very nature.”

The new project will directly engage with complex issues surrounding global-health misinformation, and aims to improve access to information and create positive social change. Tully said that she and Madrid-Morales have been thinking about this project for a while, particularly the idea of experimenting with a chat app like WhatsApp, and were delighted to receive the Waterhouse Family Institute grant.

“We are really excited to do this design, which we think is innovative in and of itself,” Tully said. “By doing this research in two countries that do not often get the attention that they deserve, we’re hoping that we can really add to our global understanding of health misinformation, and particularly around the pandemic.”

—by Katie Ann McCarver

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.