When we first entered the age of social media, these platforms were heralded as a revolutionary way to connect people from across the world. Social networks began expanding, changing human communication as we knew it.
Yet the early, endearing days of social media, in which cat and baby photos reigned supreme, eventually gave way to a murky era of misinformation, conspiracies, and skepticism. The power of this change is undeniable, with some research suggesting that users share false information even if they don’t want to.
The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed a subsequent “infodemic” of conspiracies regarding vaccines, the virus, and healthcare professionals. Though it was witnessed worldwide, the United States became a central hub for science-skepticism, due in large part to government officials — including the president at the time — minimizing the virus and doubting the efficacy of measures such as vaccinations, masking, and social distancing.
Was the United States truly an outlier in terms of its openness to COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracies? A new study by researchers from Simon Fraser University and McMaster University seems to suggest just that.
The misinformers and the misinformed
To better understand those who encounter and share COVID-19 misinformation online, the researchers conducted 10 national surveys in five English-speaking countries — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand — during two pandemic periods: July 2020 and January 2021. In total, there were nearly 13,000 respondents. Before outlining the specific patterns found in each country, they highlight some general findings about the mechanisms behind misinformation transmission.
Unsurprisingly, they found that the more someone sees misinformation online, the more likely they are to share it. Likewise, those who trust health officials more are less likely to share misinformation. More interestingly, their surveys found that those who demonstrated more populist beliefs were more likely to share COVID-19 conspiracies online.
The most common platform that respondents saw the conspiracy theories on was Facebook, with Twitter and YouTube a distant second and third respectively. For those who shared the misinformation, Facebook was again the primary method used, though apps like WhatsApp and Telegram were common in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Interestingly, nearly 10% of Americans used far-right platforms such as Parler and Gab to spread misinformation — a trend that was not found in other countries.
One of the study’s main findings was the particular susceptibility of Americans to COVID-19 misinformation. While those in the U.S. saw conspiracy theories on social media at around the same rate as the other countries, they were far more likely to share the misinformation. In fact, the ratio comparing how often misinformation is seen versus shared is nearly three times higher in the United States than any other country!
The motivation behind sharing COVID-19 misinformation was another domain in which Americans stood out from the other four countries. Unlike the rest, in which most people shared posts to spread awareness about them, Americans were much more likely to share posts to promote them and demonstrate their support.
The United States also demonstrated the strongest political correlations, with conservatives being more likely to share misinformation than their liberal counterparts. This trend was not as strong in other countries.
The Consequences of Misinformation
Though these behaviours all take place online, they have drastic real-life ramifications. The researchers warn that misinformation is correlated with decreased public health behaviours, rejection of the COVID-19 vaccine, and an increase in racial violence against those from an Asian heritage.
If scientific findings — of all backgrounds — are to be implemented and followed, they must also be trusted. Misinformation and conspiracy theories are an existential threat to public trust of scientific institutions, and it is crucial that we better understand how this phenomenon has evolved in our digital age.