Project Is Funded by a $429,000 Air Force Office of Scientific Research Grant

Neil Shortland
Assoc. Prof. Neil Shortland will research how misinformation can affect human behavior.

By Marlon Pitter

Assoc. Prof. Neil Shortland has won a three-year, $429,000 Young Investigator Project grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study the impact of misinformation on people and how it can influence some toward extreme behavior.

Shortland and two graduate student researchers from the School of Criminology and Justice Studies will study how exposure to the same types of false information online can lead to different  – and possibly harmful – outcomes for different people. 

The researchers will try to identify the psychological processes that people who are influenced by harmful online content go through and then try to understand which types of people are most at risk, Shortland says.

The research team will bring individuals into the new Misinformation Influence Neuroscience and Decision-Making (MIND) Lab and show them various pieces of information and misinformation. While the subjects view the statements, the researchers will record and analyze their physiological responses.

AnaCristina Bedoya and Presley McGarry
Doctoral students AnaCristina Bedoya, left, and Presley McGarry, right.

The research will be initially conducted with UMass Lowell students until the team expands its sampling pool to participants from outside the university.

Shortland has studied the role of anxiety in how people are affected by misinformation online. According to his prior research, there is a correlation between anxiety and radicalization from online exposure to dangerous content.

“The problem here is that we are living in a state of heightened global anxiety with political narratives that emphasize anxiety,” he says. “All of this chronic anxiety is likely making people far more susceptible to influence online.”

Doctoral student Presley McGarry, who is working as a researcher on the project, says misinformation has the potential to affect anyone.

“These are regular human processes that have taken on a pattern that leads to a sinister result,” she says. “It reminds us to extend a little bit more empathy to people who get caught up in these things, because [these are] normal psychological processes.”

Shortland says the Young Investigator Project grant is another step forward for the newly formed MIND Lab.        

“It’s already got three early career grants behind it, so I think it’s a pretty exciting new lab space that’s going to be doing some really good research over the next couple of years,” he says.

MIND Lab Participant
A participant views misinformation in the MIND Lab.

The grant will broaden the opportunities for graduate students to do research. 

“It’s something that I’m very big on and the (Center for Terrorism and Security Studies) is very big on – trying to get grad researchers to experience the funded research side of academia,” Shortland says.  “I think it just rounds out their educational experience.”

Doctoral student AnaCristina Bedoya is working on the project with McGarry and Shortland.