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As Social Media Use Rises, So Does Belief in COVID Misinformation

FRIDAY, Dec. 18, 2020 (HealthDay News) – You can't believe everything you read on social media, but those who rely on it for their news tend to think otherwise.

A new study found that the more a person turned to social media as their main source of news, the more likely that person was to believe misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Levels of worry about the coronavirus amplified people's belief in that misinformation.

Conversely, having a preference for talking with people who hold different views and having faith in scientists weakened beliefs in false information, according to the findings.

"It seems that the more you use social media, the more likely you become worried about COVID-19, perhaps because there is a lot of unfounded and conspiracy theories on social media," said study author Yan Su, from Washington State University's Murrow College of Communications. "Then this in turn can trigger a higher level of worry, which leads to further belief in misinformation."

Su analyzed the 3,080 responses to the 2020 American National Election Studies Exploratory Testing survey, which was conducted at the start of the pandemic. A little more than 480 people said they believed at least one of two pieces of misinformation about COVID-19 at that point: that the coronavirus was developed intentionally in a lab and that there was a vaccine for the virus.

Su compared this data to the participants' other responses on the survey related to social media use, levels of worry and trust in scientists, as well as how much the respondents valued discussions with people of differing viewpoints.

A Pew Research Center survey from around the same time found that 3 in 10 Americans believed that coronavirus was created in a lab. There was no evidence for this. A third believed a vaccine already existed.

The findings point to solutions that could disrupt the spread of misinformation, Su said.

"Fact-checkers are important for social media platforms to implement. When there is no fact-checker, people just choose to believe what is consistent with their preexisting beliefs," he said in a university news release. "It's also important for people to try to get out of their comfort zones and echo chambers by talking with people who have different points of view and political ideologies. When people are exposed to different ideas, they have a chance to do some self-reflection and self-correction, which is particularly beneficial for deliberation."

Continued proliferation of false and misleading stories around the pandemic suggest more research is needed, Su said.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has spread a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation, which has negative consequences because many people use these false statements as evidence to consolidate their preexisting political ideologies and attack each other," Su said. "It's important to understand the antecedents and motivations for believing and circulating misinformation beliefs, so we can find ways to counteract them."

The study was published online recently in the journal Telematics and Informatics.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers facts about COVID-19.

SOURCE: Washington State University, news release, Dec. 14, 2020

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