March 1, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 97—Misinformation, and watermarks

An increasing number of people across the United States are opting to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Still, polls suggest that roughly one-quarter to one-third of the American public remains hesitant to get the vaccine, a serious concern when it comes to reaching herd immunity. A new project from Indiana University's Observatory on Social Media points to misinformation as a factor affecting COVID-19 vaccine adoption. Working with colleagues from the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy, the IU team has created a publicly available dashboard called CoVaxxy to explore the relationship between misinformation on Twitter and attitudes about COVID-19 vaccines. Examples of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation include cautioning that Microsoft's Bill Gates is using the vaccines to implant trackable microchips in the body or that the vaccines are killing more people than the virus itself. John Bryden, executive director of the Observatory on Social Media, says misinformation isn't just a parlor game; it genuinely impacts people's lives, including their health choices and health outcomes. Sometimes the odd bit of misinformation seen just once is enough to give someone pause, and once the brain has made that link, the person becomes nervous about taking the vaccine, he says. Through CoVaxxy's interactive maps and graphs, dashboard users can see correlations between the spread of misinformation and the percentage of a state's population unwilling to get vaccinated. Users can also compare the rates of vaccine uptake in different states and track which hashtags and news websites are being shared in public conversations about vaccines. IU student and project collaborator Matt DeVerna says the tool’s goal is to visualize vaccine misinformation so people can see exactly what's going on over time.

In other news, a team of American researchers, led by an Indiana University history professor and including two IU alumni, is working with international partners on a project that could help scholars more accurately date manuscripts and early books. Watermarks have been used to date the paper on which they are found since before the 13th century. But capturing watermarks that are covered with text and identifying them is a complicated, often imprecise process. While there are "dictionaries" that researchers can reference to help identify the different markings, there are many variations of each type. IU Professor Bill Newman is leading the project and will use writings by Isaac Newton as a test case for capturing and identifying watermarks. Newman is director of the American part of an National Endowment for Humanities and the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded consortium of American, British and French institutions developing software for matching watermarks automatically and developing better ways to capture them. The project could help researchers more precisely date when Newton was developing his ideas in different areas. Newman said the research has the potential to add an important tool to building the material history of science.