A new study has found the spread of Covid-19 conspiracy theories on social media is putting people more at risk through misinformation.
Researchers from King's College London surveyed the UK population to see whether there was a link between people's levels of belief in conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19, where they got their information on coronavirus from, and how compliant they were with lockdown measures designed to stop the spread of the virus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that people who got most of their information from social media were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, and more likely to break lockdown rules.
The research, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, also available to read without a paywall on the Kings College London website, surveyed 2,254 people aged 16-75 online between May 20-22, asking whether they thought seven statements about coronavirus were true or false.
They found that a significant proportion believed in various coronavirus conspiracy theories and other misinformation. Of the less "out there" conspiracy theories, 30 percent thought that Covid-19 was made in a lab, up from 25 percent at the start of April. It wasn't. A similar percentage thought that most people in the UK have already had the virus without realizing it. This is highly unlikely given the initial results from the UK's Office of National Statistics Infection Survey, which suggests around 0.06 percent of the population having the virus between May 25 and June 7. Thirty percent also believe the UK Covid death toll is being deliberately reduced or hidden by authorities.
The numbers went down slightly with the more outlandish conspiracy theories. Fourteen percent of people thought the UK death toll is being deliberately exaggerated by the authorities, and 13 percent agreed with the statement "the current pandemic is part of a global effort to force everyone to be vaccinated". Eight percent thought Covid-19 is connected to 5G (which makes about as much sense as claiming bruised knees are linked to WiFi) and 7 percent believe there is no hard evidence that Covid-19 really exists. Which will be comforting to the families of the more than 42,000 UK dead.
The researchers found a statistically significant link between those who believed in conspiracy theories and used social media as a source of information. They broke down the data by social media platform, and the results were not pretty for YouTube and Facebook. A whopping 60 percent of those who believe Covid-19 is linked to radiation from 5G said they got their coronavirus information from YouTube, compared to 14 percent of those who do not believe the conspiracy theory. Meanwhile, 56 percent of those who believe there is no hard evidence that Covid-19 exists said they got their information about the virus from Facebook, compared with just 20 percent (which is still an alarming number) of non-believers.
Interestingly, those who were more likely to get their information from social media platforms were those who had most often broken key lockdown rules, with 58 percent of people who admitted to going outside while experiencing Covid-19 symptoms using YouTube as a main information source, compared to just 16 percent of those who hadn't gone outside with symptoms. YouTube viewers were also more likely to disobey the 2-meter distance rule. People who got their information from Facebook were more likely to have family and friends visit them in their homes – currently against the UK guidelines – than those who got their information elsewhere.
Unsurprisingly, those who believed the more extreme conspiracy theories were also more likely to break lockdown rules. Thirty-five percent of those who believe there's no hard evidence Covid-19 exists went outside their homes when they should have been quarantining, and 38 percent said they have had family and friends visit them at home, compared to 4 percent and 12 percent respectively, of non-believers.
“Our findings suggest that social media use is linked both to false beliefs about Covid-19 and to failure to follow the clear-cut rules of the lockdown," Dr Daniel Allington, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College, said in a statement.
"This is not surprising, given that so much of the information on social media is misleading or downright wrong. Now that some of the lockdown rules are being relaxed, people will have to make more and more of their own decisions about what is safe or unsafe – which means that access to good-quality information about Covid-19 will be more important than ever.
"It’s time for us to think about what action we can take to address this very real problem.”