Like viruses, false information spreads through networks. In March 2020, more than a quarter of the top Covid-19 related videos on YouTube contained misleading claims and those had more than 60m views worldwide. The World Health Organization’s Covid “myth-busters” page counters ideas such as the notion that eating garlic protects you against infection. But how many people believe such claims?
University of Cambridge researchers found in an online survey that about 15% of UK respondents thought it was more reliable than not that “the coronavirus is part of a global effort to enforce mandatory vaccination”, while 9% supported “the new 5G network may be making us more susceptible to the virus”. They found the most important factor linked to resilience to misinformation was numeracy. While we are fully aware that correlation is not causation, it encourages the idea that greater “data literacy” in the population could help bring some critical awareness of the dubious claims circulating on social media. In the meantime, research has shown that an effective strategy is to vigorously “pre-bunk” misinformation – essentially inoculating people against fake news by getting in the warnings first.
Nevertheless, we should be cautious about accepting claims about what theories people believe. Another survey made headlines when it found that one in five people agreed with: “Jews have created the virus to collapse the economy for financial gain.” However, that survey used an imbalanced scale: there were four options to agree and only one way to disagree. “Acquiescence bias” means some people like to be agreeable and some just want to get through the survey quickly. A subsequent survey with a balanced response scale still found 11% support for this statement.
Falsehoods may have real adverse consequences. The Cambridge researchers found that a one-point increase on a seven-point scale of susceptibility to misinformation was correlated with a 23% (17%-28%) decrease in intention to get vaccinated and the recent surge of the Indian variant is linked to areas of low vaccine uptake. Trusted community leaders and healthcare workers have the vital task of countering claims that could be contributing to this threat.