Young people ‘more likely’ to believe Covid disinformation, resist vaccines

Vaccines are victim of their success as generations have no awareness of vaccine-preventable diseases, conference is told

Young people are more likely to believe disinformation on Covid-19 and to resist vaccines, a conference has heard.

At the event addressing trust in medical research, Dr Eileen Culloty of Dublin City University's Institute for Future Media and Journalism explained that how people process and accept such information is highly contextual but when it comes to the pandemic, young people appear to be more sceptical than older people.

“With Covid-19 some recent studies in the US have found that younger people are far more likely to believe false claims than older people,” she said.

“One explanation for this might be that younger people have a perception that they are less at risk so they haven’t been paying as much attention to news coverage as older people so when they hear false claims they are less able to reject them.”


Dr Culloty was addressing the second day of the Health Research Board’s conference Trust and Truth in Health Research, which addressed a range of related topics, including the spread of disinformation in the digital era.

“Again, younger people are far more likely to be hesitant towards vaccines or less certain about the relevance or significance of vaccines than older people,” she said.

“One explanation for this is that vaccines are a victim of their own success; so many generations have now grown up without a tangible awareness or fear of vaccine preventable diseases.”

Public acceptance and attitudes towards vaccines is of particular importance going into 2021 when a roll-out of those designed to fight coronavirus is needed to reach large percentages of populations.

Addressing the issue of people’s reception and treatment of scientific research, Dr Culloty said the digital age had ushered in a scenario where every new study was subjected to a cycle of publication, distortion – often to further specific agendas – and correction.

“Covid-19 of course put this whole cycle into hyperdrive because research work was greatly accelerated. The news media were very eager to publish the latest findings even if those findings were not even peer reviewed yet.”

Research on how to counter disinformation has shown that corrections can be effective, she said, especially if they are fast, repeated and offer some explanatory detail.

Mark Little, the former RTÉ journalist and founder of Storyful – an early company established to scrutinise online content – said misinformation, "just wrong things on the internet", is spread for all kinds of reasons, not always maliciously.

“[But] disinformation, we need to call that out specifically, are organised campaigns . . . trying to promote real world outcomes, for example protests against the lockdown,” he said. “And that’s where we really need to be hyper vigilant.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times