Misinformation Research in Latin America

Since 2013, MIT Sloan has sought to expand its relationships with alumni, businesses, and other universities in Latin America via the MIT Sloan Latin America Office (MSLAO), the school’s first physical space outside Cambridge. One of the MSLAO’s primary functions is its global reach through seed funds to MIT researchers. With up to $25,000 awarded for each project, researchers focus on addressing critical issues in the region.

Professor David G. Rand

In 2020, the MSLAO received a record number of applications and awarded funds to six projects that ranged from a point-of-care device for early cancer detection to a mobile remote measurement technology that manages major anxiety and depression disorders. One of those six projects, executed in 2021, was “Fighting Online COVID-19 Misinformation in Latin America,” led by David G. Rand (Erwin H. Schell Professor; Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; Director of the Applied Cooperation Team).

The project is particularly relevant to the MSLAO’s goal of promoting long-term collaboration around its three areas of focus (sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, and productivity and growth) as Latin America shifts toward knowledge work and away from economies based on natural resources. Rand’s research focuses primarily on understanding online COVID-19 misinformation and the psychology behind it, as well as working to increase human cooperation.

Outside of the United States, there aren’t as many fact-checking organizations, and they’re not scalable for the massive amounts of misinformation that exist. With co-authors at MIT and the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Rand took a global perspective on misinformation— working to understand why people shared misinformation and what to do to reduce it—and included Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in their study. The research team recruited 2,000 social media users in each of 16 countries to complete an online survey that tested their ability to spot misinformation and the likelihood to share it online. 

The participants from Argentina and Mexico scored similarly to their U.S. counterparts in identifying true versus false headlines, with Brazil performing better. From there, the researchers analyzed the factors that determined participants’ behavior and were able to draw conclusions about that performance. Participants who had a stronger pro-democratic stance performed better on the survey, for example. Generally speaking, participants were less discerning when it came to sharing on social media—although those from all three Latin American countries had a smaller disconnect than those from other countries. 

Potential interventions explored by the researchers were crowd-sourced factchecking and detection, nudging people to focus on accuracy in sharing on social media, and providing digital literacy tips. “None of these approaches is a silver bullet that’s going to completely solve the problem,” said Rand. “What we need is many different tools in the anti-misinformation toolkit.”

The 2021 MSLAO seed funding for projects to be conducted in 2022 continues to support relevant, cutting-edge research, from the unequal socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 in Mexico to climate change and mining in Chile.