Purdue Libraries and School of Information Studies News

Libraries Research News: Challenging Misinformation Through Education

February 15th, 2023

This article first appeared in the January 2023 edition of Libraries’ Research Highlight newsletter. 

At this paradoxical moment in history, more Americans have access to high quality, factual information at their fingertips than ever before, and yet, conspiracy theories and their believers have never appeared more prevalent or more powerful in inspiring grassroots fanaticism. How did this happen, and more importantly, what can we, as educators, researchers, and concerned citizens, do about it?

At Libraries and School of Information Studies, we are actively seeking solutions to the misinformation epidemic. One faculty member at the forefront, Dr. Matthew N. Hannah, is exploring the public impacts of information technology and the way such technology facilitates and accelerates the growth and spread of viral online conspiracy theories. His research focuses on the visual aspects of conspiracy graphics and maps and the role they play in convincing Americans of a conspiracy theory’s legitimacy, the rhetorical and structural elements of social media in spreading mis/disinformation, and the informational dynamics of online conspiracies.

In 2022, Dr. Hannah brought his research into the classroom to engage students in a challenging project with real-world applications. Co-directed with Associate Professor Bethany McGowan (Libraries), “Diplomacy Lab” focused on global mis/disinformation. Collaborating with the Purdue Policy Research Institute and the U.S. Department of State, Dr. Hannah and Professor McGowan led an undergraduate initiative to respond to the information needs of U.S. diplomats in assessing mis/disinformation. While learning to be smarter consumers and creators of information and data themselves, students had the opportunity to design and build an information toolkit for government officials (see the toolkit here) that was well-received by the Department of State.

Diplomacy Lab class session, 2022.

Building on the success of “Diplomacy Lab,” Dr. Hannah is also leading a research initiative through the Institute of Information Literacy at Purdue, entitled “Information Literacy in the Age of Online Mis/Dis/Malinformation.” This project will bring experts in psychology, political science, computer science, and communications together to develop an information literacy toolkit for the masses, designed to help the public intervene directly when encountering online conspiracy theories. This framework will provide the basis for future toolkits to help de-radicalize conspiracy theorists.

If you are interested in reading more of Dr. Hannah’s work, his research on the conspiracy theory QAnon has appeared in First Monday and Social Media + Society. He has an article focused on online conspiracies and information literacy forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Information Literacy, and a chapter forthcoming in the book Extremism and Conspiracy Movements: From the Alt-Right to QAnon (Lexington Books). He is also co-editor with Dr. Christopher Conner (University of Missouri) of a special issue of Frontiers in Communication focused on the public impact of conspiracy theories, entitled “Paranoid Publics: Conspiracy Theories and the Public Sphere.” This semester, Dr. Hannah will teach “American Studies 301: American Conspiracy Theories,” which focuses on the conspiracism pervading American cultural and political life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (see the syllabus here).