Misinformation about Covid-19 a threat to public health – study
Researchers surveyed people in Ireland, the UK, Spain, the USA and Mexico
The study, published by the Royal Society, also found that being exposed to information about the novel coronavirus on social media is associated with higher susceptibility to misinformation in Ireland, the UK and the USA. Photo-illustration: iStock
Misinformation about Covid-19 remains a threat to public health guidance, according to a new study from psychologists at the University of Cambridge.
The study, which surveyed people in Ireland, the UK, Spain, the USA and Mexico, found that while belief in misinformation about Covid-19 is not held by the majority of people, specific misinformation claims are consistently deemed reliable by a substantial segment of the public and thus pose a potential threat to public health.
For example, researchers Jon Roozenbeek, Claudia Schneider and others found that 37 per cent of those surveyed in Spain believed that Covid-19 was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. And 16 per cent of people in their sample believed in the false conspiracy theories about 5G masts causing or exacerbating Covid-19 symptoms.
The study, published by the Royal Society, also found that being exposed to information about the novel coronavirus on social media is associated with higher susceptibility to misinformation in Ireland, the UK and the USA.
Misinformation about Covid-19 is a concern for public health doctors because it can lead to a lower compliance with public health guidance and result in people being less willing to get vaccinated against Covid-19, or recommend the vaccine to vulnerable friends and family when one becomes available.
Commenting on the study, Dr Eoin Whelan, senior lecturer in Business Information Systems at NUI Galway, says that, overall, the study findings are reassuring. “It shows that most people are not conned by misinformation. The WHO and the HSE realised early on [in this pandemic] that misinformation could have a severe impact on the response to the virus, and they presented information in a clear way. However, it is worrying that the study found that those who source information on social media are more susceptible to misinformation.”
The Cambridge University study measured participants’ belief in misinformation about Covid-19 by presenting nine statements about the virus, six of which represented common examples of health-related and political misinformation (eg 5G networks may be making us more susceptible to coronavirus, and gargling salt water or lemon juice reduces the risk of infection from coronavirus) and two of which were common factual statements (eg people with diabetes are at higher risk of complications with coronavirus) and one which was not false but ambiguous (taking ibuprofen when you are infected could make your symptoms worse).
The researchers found that people who identify themselves as being politically conservative are more susceptible to misinformation about Covid-19 in Ireland, Mexico and Spain, but notably not in the UK and the USA. They also found that those less likely to believe misinformation about Covid-19 had a higher trust in scientists and performed better on numeracy tasks.
Dr Whelan says that research carried out at NUI Galway also found that those with critical thinking and numeracy skills were less susceptible to misinformation. “It’s a reminder to us of the importance of thinking critically and questioning the sources of information to distinguish between what’s reliable and what isn’t,” says Dr Whelan.
The Cambridge study authors highlighted the importance of communicating scientific information in an open and transparent way so as to increase trust and thereby reduce reliance on misinformation.
Choosing not to acquire information about Covid-19 from social media may also reduce the amount of unofficial information that people receive, which could in turn reduce belief in misinformation.