True Costs of Misinformation

Epidemiologists have long studied the ways in which smoking endangers public health, and detailed the increased costs from smoking cessation programs, public education, and enforcement of smoke-free spaces. To achieve policy change, researchers and advocates had to demonstrate that the cost of doing nothing was quantifiable in lost productivity, sick time, educational programs, supplementary insurance, and even ventilation and alarm systems. If these externalities hadn’t been acknowledged, perhaps we’d still be coughing in smoke-filled workplaces, planes, and restaurants.

Like secondhand smoke, misinformation damages the quality of public life. Every conspiracy theory, every propaganda or disinformation campaign, affects people—and the expense of not responding can grow exponentially over time. The TaSC team studies the true costs of misinformation by using a “burden of disease” framework, which refers to analyzing the health, social, political, environmental and economic factors to determine the cost of that disease to society.

Led by Dr. Joan Donovan, Dr. Jonathan Corpus Ong, Dr. Rob Faris, and researcher Gabrielle Lim, the team is especially interested in answering the questions of how much civil society organizations spend on countering disinformation, the strategies CSOs have adopted, and what policy changes need to happen to scale back these externalities caused by misinformation-at-scale. Moreover, by using surveys and focus groups, this research project offers a comparative analysis that will reveal the differences between countries, regions, and areas of activism.

In March 2022 the team hosted an online conference to address the very urgent challenges for misinformation research to effectively document digital harms to diverse communities and precisely measure financial costs of misinformation to society at large. It gathered interdisciplinary researchers, civil society leaders, journalists and fact-checkers, and media and technology practitioners to debate questions of methodology and reflect on questions of ethics and politics in the misinformation space. Click here to learn more about the 2022 True Costs of Misinformation Workshop.