The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted society with a profusion of cases where critical pieces of information simply aren’t known yet. And the public has had to deal with managing a huge number of situations where the risks were outside its control. Under those circumstances, we shouldn’t be surprised that the human belief formation system has stepped into these gaps by latching on to conspiracy theories and substituting nefarious actors for the unknowns and uncontrolled. That has set off an ongoing battle, pitting unsubstantiated beliefs against public health experts and scientists, as well as the press that conveys their understanding to the public.
So who’s winning? Some academics decided to poll the UK public to find out. The results are a mix of good news and bad news. No conspiracy theory has reached the point where a third of the public believes it yet. But belief is more likely among younger people, who rely on social media for more of their information.
The poll, done by a team at King’s College London, relied on three surveys of the UK public. The first was a relatively small sample of self-selected respondents. But that was followed by two larger surveys (over 2,000 individuals each) that were arranged to accurately reflect the UK’s demographics. Those surveyed were asked questions about whether certain statements about the pandemic were true, as well as about their own behavior in terms of obeying the country’s social restrictions. They were also asked where they got their information about SARS-CoV-2.
(If you prefer to look at the data in graphic form, check out some of the charts the researchers generated using the survey responses.)
Some of the statements involved in the true-or-false scoring are well-known conspiracy theories, like the evidence-free suggestion that the coronavirus had been created in a laboratory, which goes against the evidence of the virus’s evolution. Others were related to topics that are the subject of other widely circulated conspiracy theories, like “the current pandemic is part of a global effort to force everyone to be vaccinated whether they want to or not.” Finally, some are just bizarre, like the suggestion that “there is no hard evidence that coronavirus really exists.”
On the plus side, only 7 percent of those surveyed think that we lack evidence of the virus’s existence. The belief that 5G networks are involved clocks in at 8 percent believing it. Things only creep up slightly when the vaccine conspiracy was considered.
On the less-good side, nearly a third of the UK populace believes in a number of blatant conspiracy theories, like the government hiding the number of people who have died or that the virus was created in a lab. Health authorities clearly have work to do.
So, what can we say about the people who believe this stuff? The researchers tested a variety of correlations. One that came out consistently is that the people who were prone to conspiratorial thinking tended to be younger and spend more time using social media when they were looking for information on the pandemic. The most frequently visited site among this group? YouTube, followed closely by Facebook. Getting information from friends and family wasn’t great, but its association with conspiracy belief was weaker than that of social media.
Social media use for research also seemed to be most closely related with the dumber of the conspiracy theories, like questioning whether we know the virus really exists or blaming its spread on 5G cellular networks.
Using social media for pandemic information was more common among younger participants; older people tended to rely more on mainstream media. This is significant in the UK, which has a formal process with potential penalties for TV and print publications that broadcast or publish misinformation. This does not apply to social media companies.
Unfortunately, people appear to be acting on their beliefs. Those who believe in conspiracy theories—particularly the idea that the virus might not exist or that its symptoms are caused by cellular signals—said they were more likely to engage in higher-risk behaviors. These behaviors include having friends or family visit them in their homes or going outside or to work despite having symptoms that could potentially indicate COVID-19. These results are consistent with a variety of past studies that found that people who believe medical conspiracies are less likely to engage in what the researchers term “health protective behaviors.”
Digital media literacy
So what can we do about this? Some seemingly positive news popped up in a study published on Monday by PNAS, entitled, “A digital media literacy intervention increases discernment between mainstream and false news in the United States and India.” The intervention itself was simple and inexpensive: get people to read Facebook’s “Tips to Spot False News” page. Unfortunately, the effect was pretty small in the best cases—dropping the rate of fake headlines being rated as accurate from 32 to 24 percent, for example—and it varied between experiments.
So, there’s not an obvious silver bullet that will help a lot more people recognize when they stumble across misinformation online. Reality is, for the time being, in an ongoing struggle against the Internet.