There is no research on how the consumption of fake news might affect people’s willingness to take a coronavirus vaccine, a conference on trust in health research has heard.
Participants also agreed that full disclosure of the data behind vaccine development will be key to securing public confidence.
Prof Declan Devane, deputy dean of the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at NUI Galway said he expected information, in particular that addressing safety, effectiveness and regulatory approval processes to be fully and transparently reported.
“I would hope that’s done in parallel with an effective communication strategy whereby we bring the public with us and give them the information [with] which they can take an informed decision,” he said.
Agreeing with that position, Dr Gillian Murphy of the School of Applied Psychology at University College Cork (UCC) said it was important to help bring the public through the process "rather than in a kind of dictatorial way just telling people 'you must get a vaccine and you are irresponsible if you don't'. We know that doesn't work."
Both were addressing the question of whether the public should be sceptical about coronavirus vaccine research during an online conference on Trust and Truth in Health Research, hosted by the Health Research Board on Tuesday.
Dr Murphy has concluded soon-to-be-published research on the rise in online misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic which measured people’s susceptibility to false memories following exposure to fabricated news stories.
The research found that those more knowledgeable about Covid-19, or who score better on a test of analytical reasoning, are less prone to reporting false memories as a result of exposure to such stories.
It also found that people who are very anxious about the virus, or who engage with a lot of related content, are also more likely to report a memory for true, rather than false stories.
During her presentation Dr Murphy said previous research has demonstrated that the more often people are exposed to a claim, the more they are likely to believe it but said there remains a lack of understanding regarding the “downstream effects” of bad information.
“You might assume, fairly, that we probably have loads of research on what fake news actually does, how it might change people’s behaviour, maybe how exposure to fake news related to a vaccine might make people less likely to actually go and get a vaccine, but surprisingly we have almost no research on the downstream effects of fake news,” she said.
There is a need, she said, to develop cognitive skills in people processing information rather than simply relying on fact-checkers.
Prof Devane said people often felt overwhelmed by health information which spreads further today given the proliferation of media.
"Indeed the rapid global spread of Covid-19 has been accompanied by what the World Health Organisation has described as a massive 'infodemic'," he said, defining this as an overabundance of both accurate and inaccurate information.
“There has always been health claims and there will always be health claims. Some stick better than others,” he said.
“However, the difference today is the multiplier effect that social media has on making the spreading of misinformation or unreliable claims much more easy. It’s effectively the super-charged old wives’ tales or folklore.”