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Fighting the spread of misinformation


The development of a quantitative measure of the spread of misinformation, for the purposes of developing a strategy to counter science denial.


Dr Tristram Alexander, Dr Ben Fulcher, Professor Manjula Sharma.

Research location

School of Physics

Program type



Why aren't scientific results having more impact on public opinion, policy and political will? The use of misinformation by vested interests has a long history, however the advent of social media, and the fracturing of the media landscape, has vastly increased the power wielded by those bent on introducing confusion into debate. The sophistication of the deception, coupled with the severity of the consequences, has prompted a large amount of recent research into the nature of misinformation [1-3], and how best to combat it [4,5]. High impact research has recently been published on the spread of `fake news' [1-4], and the need to combat scientific misinformation [5,6], however there has been no attempt to quantify the spread and impact of scientific information on public opinion and policy development. 

While social media brings unprecedented reach, it also allows for accountability, as the connections between members of the network are visible. This project will use the tools of network analysis to quantify the nature of information flow within, and between, the networks of scientists, the general public, and key influencers (such as politicians and media organisations). This quantitative analysis will give a measure of the extent to which influencers are relying on misinformation versus science in the development of policy. The project will also identify the characteristics of ``super-spreaders" in the network, and seek to determine how these characteristics may be harnessed for a public innoculation strategy. Ultimately this project is focused on tackling the fundamental barriers to the use of science in society, by developing quantitative measures to first diagnose the problem, and then developing a strategy to overcome the barriers. 

[1] N. Grinberg et al., Science 363, 374 (2019). [2] A. Bovet et al., Nat. Comm. 10, 7 (2019). [3] S. Vosoughi, et al., Science 359, 1146 (2018). [4] G. Pennycook et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 116, 2521 (2019). [5] J. Farrell et al., Nat. Clim. Change 9, 191 (2019). [6] M. Buchanan, Nat. Phys. 15, 731 (2019).

Additional information

This project falls under the Physics in Society research theme in the School of Physics. The project is framed with an emphasis on the quantitative measures of information flow in the social networks, however there is also an opportunity to take this project in a more Education Theory direction, through work with members of the SUPER group within the School of Physics. This will involve understanding at a deeper level the barriers to the dissemination of science. 

HDR Inherent Requirements  

In addition to the academic requirements set out in the Science Postgraduate Handbook, you may be required to satisfy a number of inherent requirements to complete this degree. Example of inherent requirement may include:   

  • Confidential disclosure and registration of a disability that may hinder your performance in your degree;
  • Confidential disclosure of a pre-existing or current medical condition that may hinder your performance in your degree (e.g. heart disease, pace-maker, significant immune suppression, diabetes, vertigo, etc.);
  • Ability to perform independently and/or with minimal supervision;  
  • Ability to undertake certain physical tasks (e.g. heavy lifting);  
  • Ability to undertake observatory, sensory and communication tasks;  
  • Ability to spend time at remote sites (e.g. One Tree Island, Narrabri and Camden);  
  • Ability to work in confined spaces or at heights;  
  • Ability to operate heavy machinery (e.g. farming equipment);  
  • Hold or acquire an Australian driver’s licence;  
  • Hold a current scuba diving license;  
  • Hold a current Working with Children Check;  
  • Meet initial and ongoing immunisation requirements (e.g. Q-Fever, Vaccinia virus, Hepatitis, etc.)   

You must consult with your nominated supervisor regarding any identified inherent requirements before completing your application.

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Opportunity ID

The opportunity ID for this research opportunity is 2692

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