Who is more susceptible to COVID-19 misinformation?

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Researchers have found a “clear link” between susceptibility to misinformation and both vaccine hesitancy and reduced likelihood to comply with COVID-19 public health guidance

Social psychology researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, surveyed 5,000 people across the US, UK, Mexico, Spain, and Ireland between mid-April and early May this year, to examine predictors of belief in COVID-19 misinformation.

Participants were asked to indicate their age, gender, education level, political ideology and trust in the government, scientists and journalists. They were also asked numeracy questions.

Study participants were presented with nine statements about the virus, six of which the researchers said represented common examples of health-related and political misinformation. For example:

5G networks may be making us more susceptible to the coronavirus

Gargling salt water or lemon juice reduces the risk of infection from coronavirus

The virus was bioengineered in a Wuhan laboratory

Covid-19 is part of a plot to enforce global vaccination

Two remaining statements were common factual statements (e.g. ‘People with diabetes are at higher risk of complications from coronavirus’) and one was not false but ambiguous (‘Taking ibuprofen when you are infected could make your symptoms worse’).

Participants were asked to rate the reliability of each of these statements on a 1–7 Likert scale.

Results published in Royal Society Open Science showed the majority of people in the countries surveyed do not find misinformation about COVID-19 credible. However, in all countries, the statement deemed most reliable was the claim that the coronavirus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan.

Substantial segments rated this item above the midpoint of the scale (5–7), indicating that they find this conspiracy reliable, from about 22–23% in the UK and the USA, to 26% in Ireland, to about 33% and 37% in Mexico and Spain, respectively.

At most, about 16% of people in the sample found the 5G conspiracy reliable.

The researchers also checked how reliable participants found common factual statements about the virus. Majorities in each country found them reliable, while a small but persistent group rated these statements as highly unreliable.

Higher performance on the numeracy tasks and higher trust in scientists were significantly and consistently associated with lower susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19. Meanwhile, being exposed to information about the virus on social media was associated with higher susceptibility to misinformation.

When controlling for all other factors, a one-unit increase in susceptibility to misinformation (which was measured on a 1–7 Likert scale) was associated with a 23% (OR = 0.77, 95% CI [0.72, 0.83]) and 28% (OR = 0.72, 95% CI [0.67, 0.78]) decrease in the likelihood to get vaccinated and to recommend vaccination to vulnerable friends and family, respectively.

Meanwhile a one-unit increase in trust in scientists was associated with a 73% (OR = 1.73, 95% CI [1.57–1.91]) increase in the odds of getting vaccinated and a 79% (OR = 1.79, 95% CI [1.61–1.98]) increase in the odds of recommending vaccination to others.

Education level, political ideology, self-identified minority status and performance on the numeracy task were not significant predictors of vaccination intentions.

Higher susceptibility to misinformation was the only variable in the model that predicted lower compliance with public health guidance, particularly in Mexico and Spain, but also in the USA. This effect was not significant in Ireland and the UK. However women were significantly more likely than men to comply with a greater number of public health guidance measures in all countries surveyed.

A different study published in BMJ Global Health in May this year found over one-quarter of the most viewed YouTube videos on COVID-19 contained misleading information, reaching millions of viewers worldwide. The World Health Organization has responded to a variety common myths related to COVID-19 here.

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