People who get most of their news from social media like Facebook and YouTube are much more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, according to research from Kings College London.
The report also suggests those reliant on social media for news are much more likely to ignore government messaging on staying safe during the pandemic and more likely to disobey lockdown rules.
The research was published earlier this month in the journal Psychological Medicine.
Researchers from Kings College London and polling company Ipsos MORI looked at a range of conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic.
“We defined conspiracy theories as explanations of the COVID-19 pandemic which suggest that it was intentional, so either that the virus was created artificially or that the virus is not as dangerous as people think and something else is being used to deliberately cause what most of us believe to be the symptoms of the virus, or the idea that maybe there isn’t a problem at all,” said Daniel Allington, lead author of the report, in a June 24 Skype interview with VOA. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
One prominent conspiracy theory is that 5G mobile technology is causing the disease. In recent weeks, dozens of 5G mobile telecom towers have been destroyed across Britain. Police say a belief that the masts are causing the respiratory ailment appears to have motivated many of the attacks.
The researchers questioned 2,254 British residents. Overall, 8 percent believed that 5G technology was causing the pandemic. Of those people, 60 percent said they got their information from YouTube. Out of the 92 percent of people who don’t believe the 5G conspiracy theory, only 14 percent said their information came from YouTube.
Among people who believe the coronavirus does not exist at all, some 56 percent cited Facebook as their primary source of news. Allington says the most disturbing finding has been the readiness among those who believe in conspiracy theories about the disease to break quarantine and lockdown rules.
“We found that people who had gone out, gone outside or gone to work despite having what they knew were possible coronavirus symptoms were much more likely to be getting their information from social media,” Allington told VOA.
That presents a health risk that must be addressed, says British lawmaker Damian Collins, co-founder of the group ‘Infotagion’ which aims to fight misinformation about the pandemic.
“A lot of this content is still there and a lot of the times when it’s referred to social media companies, they don’t act immediately to take this content down,” Collins told VOA via Skype, adding that he has big concerns over the role social media might play in any vaccination program.
“If we get to a position where we’ve got a vaccine and for the vaccine to be effective, we need the vast majority of people to agree to take it. It’s important that people have got confidence in that. And if people are spreading conspiracy theories and lies about the vaccine and trying to persuade people not to take it, then there’s a serious public health risk to that.”
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter say they have removed hundreds of thousands of videos and posts relating to COVID-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent harm.
In written evidence submitted to the British parliament, Facebook said that during the month of April it had “displayed warning labels on around 50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19 on Facebook,” adding, “…When people saw those warning labels, 95% of the time they did not click to view the original content.”
Despite such claims, the internal systems in place to deal with misinformation remain opaque, says Allington of Kings College London. “Those systems have got to be opened up for auditing by democratically-accountable bodies,” he told VOA.
The social media giants are facing a backlash on multiple fronts. More than 150 companies – including Starbucks and Coca-Cola - have stopped buying advertising on Facebook over concerns around misinformation and hate speech.
At the same time, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May seeking to strip social media companies of legal immunity for the content posted by users, after Twitter tagged one of his tweets with a fact-check notice. “If Twitter were not honorable and you're going to have a guy like this being the judge and jury, I think you shut it down, as far as I'm concerned. But I'd have to go through a legal process to do that,” Trump told reporters May 28.