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Social media users are more likely to believe false information about COVID-19 and to ignore public health advice, study suggests

The differences in the attitudes and behaviors of people who get their news from social media versus traditional media held even after the study took into account such factors as scientific literacy and socio-economic differences.

social media
The study found that people who are exposed to those misconceptions on social media are less likely to comply with important public health recommendations regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
REUTERS/Thomas White

People who get most of their news from social media rather than traditional news sites are more likely to harbor misconceptions about COVID-19, according to a new Canadian study.

The study also found that people who are exposed to those misconceptions on social media are less likely to comply with important public health recommendations regarding the coronavirus pandemic, such as physical distancing.

These differences in the attitudes and behaviors of people who get their news from social media versus traditional media held even after the study took into account such factors as scientific literacy and socio-economic differences.

The findings are troubling. “There is a real danger that without concerted efforts to reduce the amount of misinformation shared on social media, the large-scale social efforts required to combat COVID-19 will be undermined,” the study’s authors write.

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How the study was done

For the study, a team of researchers from McGill University in Montreal collected almost 2.5 million tweets related to COVID-19 that were posted between March 26 and April 6, 2020, by 620,000 Canadian Twitter users. They also amassed almost 9,000 COVID-19 articles from 19 English-language news sites published during the same time period.

The researchers then coded the tweets and news items for four specific pieces of misinformation: that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, that vitamin C and other supplements can prevent people from catching the virus, that the virus initially “jumped” to humans as a result of people eating infected bats, and that COVID-19 is a hoax or conspiracy. They also coded the items for public health recommendations for two safe practices during the pandemic: washing hands and physical distancing.

The study found large differences between the two types of media on the quality of information shared about COVID-19. Misinformation was much more likely to appear on Twitter, while public health advice was more likely to appear in traditional media. When false information did appear in traditional media, it was usually in a context that explained why the information was untrue.

The researchers also surveyed a nationally representative sample of almost 2,500 Canadian adults during the first week of April. The survey respondents were asked to rate nine false claims about the coronavirus (such as it being no worse than the seasonal flu) on a scale of 0 (definitely false) to 5 (definitely true). They were also asked about any behaviors they had undertaken in response to the pandemic, such as avoiding in-person contact with friends, non-household family and acquaintances. Additional questions asked them to identify the news outlets and social media platforms they had used during the previous week for political news.

The survey’s answers revealed “a strong association” between exposure to social media and non-compliance with physical distancing — a finding that suggests, say the study’s authors, that “social media usage appears to be correlated with COVID-19 misperceptions.”

“This result stands in stark contrast with the observed relationship between traditional news exposure and our outcome measures,” the researchers add. “Traditional news exposure is positively associated with correct perceptions regarding COVID-19.”

Limitations and implications

The study is observational, so it can’t prove a direct link between social media consumption and misperceptions about COVID-19. In addition, the evaluated information coming from only selected media outlets and during a specific period of time, which may limit its findings — although, as the researchers point out, “social media usage are even higher for other social media platforms, suggesting that our analysis of Twitter content may underrepresent the prevalence of misinformation on social media writ large.”

The study also included only Canadians, so the findings may not be generalizable to other populations. “Other countries may have different media environments and levels of misinformation circulating on social media,” the study’s authors write.

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They believe, however, that the findings would most likely be similar in other places.

“There is growing evidence that misinformation circulating on social media poses public health risks,” says Taylor Owen, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, in a released statement. “This makes it even more important for policy makers and social media platforms to flatten the curve of misinformation.”

FMI:  The study was published online in the peer-reviewed Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, where it can be read in full.