Scholars’ College thesis project examines misinformation about COVID-19 virus

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Jared Parks

Jared Parks thought he had a good topic for his senior thesis project in the Louisiana Scholars’ College at Northwestern State University. But as a scientific inquiry major with plans to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience, pharmacology and toxicology, he was worried about misinformation he saw about the Novel Coronavirus.

Parks’ new topic “The Impacts of Spreading Misinformation: the Novel Coronavirus,” addresses a major concern of those fighting the disease.

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“My research discusses some of the major forms of false information and how their propagation throughout media has negatively impacted the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Parks, a graduating senior from Keithville. ”The most significant takeaway, I think, is that we as a people should make a unifying collective effort to combat the spread of misinformation by promoting the dissemination of accurate, scientifically proven and reliable information. In addition, we as a people should come together rather than divide further if we hope to come out of this pandemic as safely as possible.”

Parks worked with Scholars’ College Director Dr. Kirsten Bartels and Associate Professor of History Dr. William Housel on the project. Bartels suggested he switch his focus from a project on computational chemistry to the COVID-19 virus.

“It was her proposal and my growing concern with how people were reacting to the pandemic that allowed the thesis to take form,” said Parks. “Neglectful ideologies and panic-based ideologies became the most common responses and that was worrisome to me as they were only products of false information. As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, surging across continents and media, its relevance could not be ignored. It truly seemed too important to pass up and I am grateful for being able to work on such a relevant topic.”

Parks did much of his research based on literature review about the types of false information, their characteristics, as well as closely following statistics regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. He said his work is complicated by new data that comes in each day.

“Despite this, incredible similarities can be observed when comparing the evolving misinformation in media to previous research on the propagation of false information,” said Parks. “I used these previous observations of false information and related them to our current situation to support the idea that spreading misinformation is a large contributor to the quality of our situation.”

In studying false information, Parks focused on misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. He defined misinformation as any form of shared information that is unwittingly false, lacking the intent to do harm. Parks said the most common form of misinformation is shared social media posts the user did not verify prior to sharing.

According to Parks, disinformation is any form of information that is purposefully false with the intent to spread lies for the sake of some alternative agenda, whether it be political, financial or otherwise. An example is smear campaigns between competitors. Parks said conspiracy theories can be defined as any outlandish attempt to explain events as the consequence of some sinister and powerful conspirator. Parks stated conspiracy theories typically lack solid logical reasoning and rely on a lack of evidence against the idea as support for it.

Parks feels the major social media companies are not doing enough to prevent misinformation from being spread.

“I see new examples every day when I open up Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok,” he said. “I personally do not believe enough is being done to directly take down large quantities of false information.”

One positive development is the promotion of valid information.

“Social media platforms have taken to promoting reliable sources of scientifically backed information in order to make it the first thing on everyone’s feeds,” said Parks. “What someone does with this information is up to them, I think most tend to ignore the scientific information for the fanatical so it would be best to directly remove false information at the source.’

Parks admits it may be difficult for individuals to find out whether shared information is accurate.

“I suggest that when anyone comes across information regarding such a high-profile situation, that they cross reference using scientific and technical databases such as PubMed or journals like The Lancet,” said Parks. “Referring to the professionals is always a safe option and in this pandemic those professionals would be your epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists and virologists. Trust the individuals who put years and years into studying the events we are living through.”

Parks said the work on his thesis has had meaning beyond being a class project.

“This project has been one of interest and passion for me and I find it useful when I read news every single day,” he said. “As I continue to keep up with new information about the pandemic, my eyes and ears are open to what may be false and what may be reliable. I find this particularly useful in a time that demands quick and accurate science as well as unity between people.”

The thesis project is a unique feature of the Scholars’ College. It serves as the culmination of a student’s academic work. Each project is a substantial work of scholarship, criticism, scientific research or artistic execution. Parks said his time in the Scholars’ College has shaped him academically and personally.

“This place of learning, the professors, and my peers have all contributed to my growth in all areas and I do not think I would change a thing about my experience here,” said Parks. “I would like to think I have become a much better and more intelligent person because of the Scholars’ College.”

Established in 1987 as the state’s designated honors college, the Louisiana Scholars’ College offers students the opportunity to pursue their academic and personal goals in a supportive atmosphere. The core curriculum combines great books-based courses with courses in mathematics and sciences to provide students with a strong foundation for their more focused study in one the College’s concentrations or in a traditional major.

Prospective students who are interested in learning about the Scholars’ College can attend a Virtual Scholars’ Day from 1-3 p.m. Thursday, April 30.  Participants will be able to participate in a Scholars’ College class, explore options on majors, take a virtual tour, chat with professors and ask questions about scholarships and financial aid.

To register, visit nsula.edu/recruiting/preview-days.  For more information, contact Forest Middlebrook at middlebrookf@nsula.edu or call (318) 663-0134. Information on the Scholars’ College is available at https://www.nsula.edu/scholars/.