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Social media were a poor information source in the pandemic
Eszter Hargittai, zvg.

Social media were a poor information source in the pandemic

Misbeliefs about the Coronavirus were widespread. To what extent people held them was related to their media consumption.

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Since the start of the Covid pandemic, disagreement has reigned about how society and people can best protect themselves from the virus. In the early days of the pandemic, there was genuine confusion on all sides of the political aisle given how little was known about the virus and given that most countries had not experienced lockdown in our lifetimes. People turned to multiple information sources to inform themselves about the situation. In April 2020, my division focused on Internet Use & Society at the University of Zurich’s Department of Communication and Media Research administered a survey on the Swiss population (from all cantons) to learn about people’s knowledge and misconceptions about Covid. We also asked people where they were getting information about the pandemic.

Traditional media dominated

Over ninety percent of the 1350 Swiss adults we surveyed reported following news about Covid very closely or somewhat closely; clearly the topic was top of mind for most people. Asked what media they were consulting, by far the most popular source was SRF, which 89% mentioned as a source with 59% consulting it daily or almost daily. Online-only news sites and government sites were also popular at over 70% both as were traditional newspapers. Social media were less important with about half reporting WhatsApp, less than half mentioning Facebook, and even less getting information on Instagram and Twitter about the Coronavirus.

Earlier in the survey, we asked people how they could avoid getting the virus listing 11 potential strategies, some of them correct, others not. The options were from a list that the World Health Organization (WHO) had put together on its Web site to debunk myths already circulating in those early days of the pandemic. We purposefully avoided anything controversial at the time such as masking. Some of the options we listed which were incorrect ways to avoid the virus included eating freshly boiled garlic (5% of Swiss thought this would help), avoiding buying products made in China (9%), taking vitamin C (20%), and avoiding taking anti-inflammatory drugs (21%). While it may seem innocent to have such misbeliefs about how someone could protect themselves from the virus, if these incorrect strategies gave people a sense of safety about exposure then they could have dire consequences. On the whole, less than half of the people we surveyed in Switzerland held zero misbeliefs about the virus. Just under a third held one misbelief, 12% held two, and others more. We administered the same survey in Italy and the United States as well. Italians were much less likely to hold misconceptions, which may be due to it having been the first country outside Asia to have been hard hit by the pandemic with serious responses from the government such as hard lockdowns. Americans, on the other hand, were more likely to hold misconceptions, but it is not clear why.

The older, the better informed

We had also asked respondents about their knowledge of Covid, including through multiple-choice questions. While many people were informed, some lacked basic understanding such as the fact that people could be contagious regardless of whether they showed symptoms (19% of the Swiss did not know this) and that they should self-quarantine by staying at home as a precaution if they had come into close contact with infected people (28% did not know this). Interestingly, being knowledgeable about Covid and holding misconceptions about it were not simply the two sides of the same coin. While understanding it better was related to holding fewer misconceptions about it, there were plenty of people who were knowledgeable, yet still held misbeliefs.

Who was less likely to believe misinformation about the pandemic? Consistent across the three countries is that older people were less likely to believe wrong information. This is notable, because research about other topics such as politics has found that older people are more likely to hold misbeliefs. Perhaps because one of the first things that became widely known about the Coronavirus was that it was affecting older people more, this age group was more aware of how to stay safe. Women were also less likely to hold misconceptions.

Good grades for SRF

Did misconceptions vary depending on what information sources people consulted about the virus? Only in Switzerland is there a clear answer: those who got information from SRF about the Coronavirus daily or almost daily held fewer misbeliefs than those who did not. Unlike in some other countries like the United States, Switzerland has a strong public broadcasting system that the public supports and trusts. Relying on social media, on the other hand, was linked to more misinformation beliefs. Even among those who discussed the pandemic on social media, misbeliefs were higher. Especially of concern is that those who reported correcting others on social media about the Coronavirus had lower knowledge and higher misconceptions about it. Confidence in knowledge does not necessarily equal actual knowledge.

In an age of countless sources to learn about every topic imaginable, it is notable that the national public broadcaster played such a significant role in informing people about the pandemic.

«Especially of concern is that those who reported correcting others on social media about the Coronavirus had lower knowledge and higher misconceptions about it.»

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