Motta works to curtail misinformation and other problems in communications
Thursday, September 30, 2021
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These days, if you’re a researcher focusing on American politics, public opinion, science communication, misinformation, and both health and environmental policy, it makes sense that you’d be in demand.
And that’s exactly where Dr. Matthew Motta, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, finds himself.
Of course, his expertise is in demand when a presidential election is coming up — or when there are differing views about what happened in a recent election. He is called upon for discussions about views on global warming and conspiracy theories such as flat-Earthers and Q-Anon. And his research subjects include vaccine hesitancy, obviously important in the era of COVID-19.
Academics live by the motto “publish or perish,” which means they write papers for scholarly journals as often as possible, and Motta is no exception. But he also believes part of his job is to work with the media and share his research findings in ways that will get the attention of the general public.
“I have always thought it was important to let the taxpayers know what I’m doing since my salary and my research are both supported by public funds,” Motta said. “But more than that, if my research can make lives better, then I have an obligation to communicate the findings to the press and those who have the power to pull the levers to make change. It’s a natural consequence of studying important topics.”
In the past year, he has appeared on, been featured in or written for The Atlantic, BBC, Bloomberg TV, Bloomberg’s Prognosis Podcast, CNN, The Conversation, KJRH, KOKI, KTUL, National Geographic, NBCLX, The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, the United States of Care, The Washington Post and Vox. He was also featured on the Pokes PodCAS on Episode 43: “Misinformation and Why It Matters.” (Listen at okla.st/mottapodcast.)
“I’m not sleeping a lot, but if there was ever a time to go hard, this is it,” Motta said. “I want to do everything I can to improve other people’s lives, and an important part of that is making sure that my research is getting out there where it won’t only be seen by academics.”
Kristen Baum, the College of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for research, praised Motta’s efforts.
“One of our goals as a land-grant institution is to conduct research that benefits Oklahoma, the nation and the world, and to share that research with the public,” Baum said. “Matt is passionate about conducting and sharing research, and his research has a clear and direct benefit to people. Matt’s ability to share his research in an engaging and informative way has brought a lot of positive attention to the college and OSU. We are very fortunate to have him as a faculty member.”
Much of his work covers misinformation and conspiracy theories, including why people seek information that only supports what they believe. And his research shows that many people overestimate how much they know about many topics — and even having the facts doesn’t mean that someone will stop believing in fringe ideas.
“For example, if you want to know something about the curvature of the Earth, ask a flat-Earther,” Motta said. “They know everything there is to know about it, because they need to in order to reject the understanding that most people have about the shape of the Earth. Often it’s the most informed who are the least likely to change their minds.”
For some, the motivation to find, believe and share misinformation is connected to their belief in a conspiracy theory. And people with “conspiratorial ideation” tend to believe one conspiracy theory after another.
"People are very bad at coping with uncertainty, so conspiracy theories are a powerful way of coping with things. They explain things, and for some people, having any answer is better than no answer. Admitting that we don’t know something is very uncomforting. The difference is whether we turn to conspiracies to fill that void."
Motta said most misinformation and conspiracy theories are harmless. For example, an insistence that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t assassinate President Kennedy doesn’t typically lead to extreme actions. But as the COVID-19 pandemic made clear, a refusal to believe the doctors and scientists touting the safety and efficacy of vaccines can directly lead to actions that result in deaths that were preventable. And cases like that are why he does what he does.
“Because I’m researching topics getting so much attention right now, some people say, ‘Wow, 2020 and 2021 were great for you, weren’t they?’” Motta said. “No, they weren’t, because I’m a person first. I’m somebody living through one of the greatest human tragedies in our lifetime. That brings me no joy. But I am happy that my research can contribute to a better understanding of this pandemic and more effective ways to get out of it. That includes the opportunities I’ve had to talk to policymakers or people close to them, to help influence ways they think about trying to get people vaccinated.”
Photos By: College of Arts and Sciences
Story By: Jacob Longan | CONNECT Magazine