Exploring the Viral Spread of Disease and Disinformation

The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of mathematical models in predicting the spread of the coronavirus (Srinivas 2020; Stevens & Muyskens 2020) and assessing the effectiveness of various safety measures in reducing that spread (Li et al 2020). These models can be extremely sophisticated, drawing on the expertise of applied mathematicians, epidemiologists, public health experts, and others, but at its core, there is a notion of exponential growth that is relevant for the secondary mathematics curriculum. It is crucial that students recognize how an exponential situation is a different sort of threat than a linear or polynomial situation, and the pandemic provides heartbreaking motivation for this point. Yet the pandemic has also revealed that we are not only threatened by an airborne virus, we are also threatened by the spread of misinformation (false or misleading information that is shared by someone who believes it to be accurate) and disinformation (false or misleading information that is shared knowingly and purposefully). For example, in July 2020, before vaccines were available and during a time when mask-wearing was highly recommended by experts, a video went viral falsely claiming that COVID-19 could be cured and that people did not need to wear masks (Shead, 2020). It was viewed tens of millions of times before the social media companies pulled it down. With the emergence of the vaccines, there have been many more misleading stories that have gone viral. Indeed, throughout the pandemic, many of the most viral stories on social media have contained misinformation (Parks, 2021). In some ways, this viral spread of misinformation has a similar mathematical structure to the spread of an airborne virus and it is important that our students, to the extent possible, are inoculated against
misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories. The tasks described in this chapter are intended to build connections between these real-world dangers of viral spread and some relevant topics from the secondary mathematics curriculum. We also explore a link between mathematical reasoning and media literacy—the ability to discern the commercial, ideological, or political motivations of media and the recognition that receivers negotiate the meaning of messages (Aufderheide, 1993)—so that, just as we know to take safety precautions with regard to an airborne coronavirus, we can also help our students learn to take precautions against the spread of misinformation on social media.

Otten, S., Bemke, J., & Webb, J. (In press). Exploring the viral spread of disease and disinformation. In S. R. Harper & D. C. Cox (Eds.), Math in Action: Grades 9-12 (Chapter 2). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.