About Leticia Bode, Ph.D.: Leticia Bode is Provost Distinguished Associate Professor of Georgetown University’s interdisciplinary Communication, Culture, and Technology master’s program. Dr. Bode’s research at the boundaries of political communication and media and technology studies tackles important contemporary issues such as misinformation, as in her forthcoming book How to Correct Misinformation on Social Media, which is co-authored with Emily K. Vraga.
Dr. Bode is co-author of Words that Matter: How the News and Social Media Shaped the 2016 Presidential Election and co-editor of the collected volume Studying Politics Across Media. Her publications have appeared in leading journals like Atlantic Journal of Communication, Mass Communication and Society, and New Media and Society, among many others, and as chapters in a number of edited collections. Dr. Bode’s work has been recognized with a Young Scholar Award from the International Communication Association, the American Political Science Association’s Walter Lippmann Award for the Best Article in the field of Political Communication, and many other accolades. In 2015, she was named a Kopenhaver Center Fellow by the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication.
In 2019, Dr. Bode was appointed a Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor at Georgetown University. There, she also serves as Affiliate Faculty at the Massive Data Institute and in the Department of Government. Dr. Bode earned her M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received her B.A. in Political Science and Spanish from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in the relationship between new media and political communication and come to focus your research on addressing the circulation of misinformation online?
[Dr. Leticia Bode] I went to Trinity University for my bachelor’s degree, majoring in Political Science and Spanish. While I was there, I discovered a love of teaching and mentoring, and decided to apply to a PhD. I got a master’s degree and then my Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Wisconsin.
I’ve been part of Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program since 2012, where I teach courses about politics and evolving communication technologies, misinformation and society, and methods courses like Survey Research and Content Analysis.
I started my career studying how new communication technologies like social media affected how people communicated about politics, and how knowledgeable and engaged around politics they were as a result. When I would present that work, someone would always bring up their “crazy uncle” who shared really low quality – frankly, wrong! – political information on social media.
That got me thinking about how to address that issue – what’s the best way to deal with misinformation that gets shared on social media? At that point I pivoted to studying mostly health and science misinformation instead of politics because it tends to be easier to clearly identify what is true and false, due to expert consensus that exists on some (though, unfortunately, a surprisingly small number of) health and science topics.
[MastersinCommunications.com] A major focus of your work on misinformation has been seeking out corrective measures to mitigate its spread and political impact. For example, one of your most recent publications is “The Swiss Cheese Model for Mitigating Online Misinformation,” and your forthcoming book is How to Correct Misinformation on Social Media. Would you provide us some background on why misinformation is such a critical political issue today, and some of the key interventions your research has identified for addressing it?
[Dr. Leticia Bode] Misinformation is not a new problem – people have always lied in politics! I think the emphasis on it now is partly because it’s easier to observe than it has been in the past, even if it may not be any more prevalent.
There are lots of different interventions that work to mitigate the effects of misinformation, including demonetizing misinformation, making content harder to share on social media, nudging people to think about accuracy, and teaching people about misinformation to protect them against it. This is sometimes called media literacy or inoculation.
My research has focused on different forms of correction – from platforms, experts, journalists, or everyday social media users. We think correction is particularly important because of its flexibility – it can happen anywhere, by anyone with the right information, and on any topic.
There are lots of challenges to correcting people that you can read about in my book next year. But I’ll focus on one today. This is a logistical challenge. We need to get the corrective information to the same place as the misinformation. When people see both together, they’re actually more persuaded by the correction. When people see corrections and remember them, they experience almost a 20% drop in misperceptions, which we define as belief in misinformation. But if they don’t see the correction, they can be persuaded by the misinformation instead.
That’s part of why we think people can be effective correctors – they’re the ones seeing misinformation, and they can “match” corrections to misinformation when they see it.
[MastersinCommunications.com] One important application of your scholarship on this issue has been combating health misinformation and misinformation regarding COVID-19. You have published several articles on this topic, and in 2022 you participated in a Roundtable on Health Misinformation that included the US Surgeon General. Would you discuss how health misinformation is representative of, or unique with respect to, other common forms of digital misinformation?
[Dr. Leticia Bode] In some ways health misinformation tends to be easier than other types of misinformation, because there’s often a clear divide between what’s true and what’s false. On many health issues, there is scientific consensus about what’s true, based on decades of research on the topic.
COVID-19 was actually an exception to this rule, because at the beginning of the pandemic there was essentially zero knowledge about the details of the disease, since it was brand new. At the same time, there was unprecedented demand for such information. Even people who often tune out – scholars call them “news avoidant” – were tuned in to the issue of COVID-19. When there is greater demand for knowledge than there is reliable information, researchers like Microsoft’s Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd call it a “data void” [you can read more on data voids here]. This makes people particularly susceptible to misinformation.
During the roundtable with the Surgeon General, I emphasized the consistency of our findings that when people see corrections on social media, which we call “Observed Correction,” it reduces their misperceptions. That is to say, they become better informed. This is a fairly easy thing to promote, and the government, public health organizations, journalists, and others can all help by making accurate information easier to find, understand, and share.
[MastersinCommunications.com] You have also applied the study of misinformation to science communication in “Correcting Misperceptions About Genetically Modified Food on Social Media.” Could you discuss how or why misinformation has seeped into such diverse areas of discourses? Are their particular challenges that come with studying a phenomenon that occurs across such different contexts? Are there other areas besides politics, health, and science where you have observed misinformation online?
[Dr. Leticia Bode] Misinformation can be found in any area where someone is trying to persuade, entertain, or gain power. That means misinformation is everywhere, on all sorts of topics, and really always has been. One of my favorite examples of this? According to Buzzfeed News journalists Craig Silverman and Scott Pham, the number one fake news story in 2018 was “Lottery winner arrested for dumping $200,000 of manure on ex-boss’ lawn.”
There are a couple of reasons this story was probably so popular. First, it’s entertaining. It’s funny. It’s easy to imagine, visually, and it makes me chuckle to picture it. Second, it’s totally believable and relatable. So many of us have had terrible bosses and wouldn’t mind seeking some relatively benign revenge on them. The story resonates because of that relatability.
One research finding is that the more plausible a piece of misinformation is, the more likely people are to believe it. Having said that, we also find that people are easier to correct on this kind of misinformation. It’s not related to their core values or the way they see the world or how they think about themselves as a person. So there’s less cost in them saying “oh, too bad, guess that wasn’t true after all” as compared to a piece of misinformation that does check those boxes.
For instance, one of our studies that showed the greatest corrective power was about raw milk being safe. (It’s not! We pasteurize milk for a reason!) It was very easy to correct people on this issue because most people just don’t know that much about raw milk and also don’t really care that much. It doesn’t affect them the way something that ties to their political identity, their cultural group, or other key values would.
[MastersinCommunications.com] While much of your research focuses on political discourse online, you have also investigated the significance of not talking about politics, for example, in your publication “Skipping Politics: Measuring Avoidance of Political Content in Social Media.” Would you discuss some of the factors that drive people to avoid politics on social media? Do you see the avoidance of political content and misinformation as importantly related or as contributing to a larger problematic political dynamic online?
[Dr. Leticia Bode] It’s important to remember that most people don’t care much about politics. They don’t really see it as affecting their everyday life, and most of their attention is focused on things like family and work. For that reason, plenty of people actively avoid politics. For some people it’s irrelevant, for some it’s uncomfortable, for some it’s overly hostile.
A broader category of this is news avoidance, where people just check out of following the news entirely. Even though we think of the online world as being very politically polarized, most people actually don’t see much political content online at all.
That may feel dangerous for a functioning democracy, but lots of people have always been bored by or uninterested in politics.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in the relationship between digital media and political communication who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?
There are so many different ways to think about, and to study, the relationship between digital media and political communication, that it’s hard to know what advice to give! But it’s a very rich area of active research, and because the digital media environment is constantly evolving, there are always new questions to ask. Pursuing a graduate degree in communication, like Georgetown’s Master’s degree in Communication, Culture, and Technology, is a great way to dig into some of those questions.
More generally, I would advise that anyone interested in a communication graduate degree find a place that feels like a good fit. By fit, I mean several things. First, are there faculty doing research that excites you? You could go to a top tier program but have no one to talk to about the things that brought you to study communication in the first place.
Second, does the culture of the program fit your needs and preferences? For instance, some programs are very competitive, whereas others are super collaborative and supportive. Which do you like better? Some programs are very regimented, giving you a clear set of classes to take, whereas others are much more flexible. Which do you prefer? Finally, you’re going to spend part of your life at this place. Make sure it’s somewhere you actually want to live! There’s no right answer – it’s just about making a choice that makes sense for you, and asking enough questions ahead of time to make sure that you’ll be happy with that choice.
Thank you, Dr. Bode, for sharing your insight on digital media and misinformation in the contexts of politics, health, and science!
Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.