People in the United States seem to be an outlier in the amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 they share compared to four other English-speaking countries, according to a new study. People in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand were exposed to roughly the same amount of misinformation online – but people in the US were three times as likely to share it.
There are also several differences in misinformation sharing between the US and other countries. An important one is about the reason to share conspiracy theories. Outside the US, people more often shared them to warn others that they were misinformation – unlike in the US, where they were mostly shared to promote or show support for them. They were also used as a way to connect to others.
"America is an outlier. Our findings are consistent with recent work about the outsized role that Americans play in sharing misinformation on social media," study author and political science professor Mark Pickup, from Simon Fraser University, said in a statement.
The findings come from representative national surveys conducted in the five countries first in July 2020 and then in January 2021. The July analysis had 6,956 people involved and the January follow-up has 5,864, with roughly the same number of people from each country represented.
In all countries (except Canada), those who trust social media to provide factual information are more likely to share misinformation than those who don’t. Again, this phenomenon was more pronounced in the United States than in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.
All five countries had something in common though: citizens who had populist attitudes and distrusted health officials were most likely to share misinformation online. The polarized political landscape where populist politicians engaged in culture wars over how to deal (or not deal) with the pandemic played a huge role, especially in the US. Those who identified as a conservative and those trusting the Trump government were more likely to share misinformation online.
“Our findings are consistent with recent work about the outsized role that Americans play in sharing misinformation on social media,” the authors wrote in the paper.
Facebook was by far the most common platform for sharing misinformation – over half of those sharing misinformation or conspiracy theories used Zuckerberg’s social network to do so.
The study was published in the Journal of Quantitative Description: Digital Media.