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More social media use increases belief in misinformation about COVID-19, study finds

Experts say that consumers struggle to see past misleading posts

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a great deal of misinformation about the virus has been circulated on social media

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Washington State University has found that consumers are more likely to buy into this misinformation when they spend more time on social media. 

“It seems that the more you use social media, the more likely you become worried about COVID-19, perhaps because there is a lot of unfounded and conspiracy theories on social media,” said researcher Yan Su. “Then this in turn can trigger a high level of worry which leads to further belief in misinformation.”

The importance of engaging with different ideas

To understand the relationship between social media use and belief in misinformation, the researchers analyzed over 3,000 responses to the American National Elections Exploratory Testing Survey. While the survey covered a wide range of topics, the researchers were primarily focused on how much time the respondents spent on social media and where they stood on critical stances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Participants were more likely to believe that either a vaccine for COVID-19 had been created or that the virus was created in a lab if they spent more time on social media. While several pharmaceutical companies have since created a vaccine for COVID-19, this data was collected in early April, which means this misinformation had reached consumers at a critical point in the pandemic. 

Additionally, the study revealed that the more worried people became about the pandemic, the more likely they were to believe misinformation on social media. However, the researchers also learned that participants weren’t doomed to get stuck in this cycle. Engaging with people who had different points of view was found to be a key component in not buying into misinformation on social media. Those who had a deeper understanding of science were also more likely to identify and reject falsehoods. 

“Fact checkers are important for social media platforms to implement,” said Su. “When there is no fact checker, people just choose to believe what is consistent with their pre-existing beliefs. It’s also important for people to try to get out of their comfort zones and echo chambers by talking with people who have different points of view and political ideologies. When people are exposed to different ideas, they have a chance to do some self-reflection and self-correction, which is particularly beneficial for deliberation.” 

The researchers hope that future studies continue to explore this area because they worry about how the continued spread of misinformation about the pandemic will continue to affect consumers.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, social media has spread a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation, which has negative consequences because many people use these false statements as evidence to consolidate their pre-existing political ideologies and attack each other,” Su said. “It’s important to understand the antecedents and motivations for believing and circulating misinformation beliefs, so we can find ways to counteract them.”

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