Enlarge /. A hat made of the finest aluminum foil (in this case joking and probably actually made of aluminum).
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The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted society with a variety of cases where critical information is simply not yet known. And the public had to deal with a variety of situations where the risks were beyond their control. In these circumstances, it should come as no surprise to us that the system of human belief has stepped into these gaps by using conspiracy theories and replacing the unknown and the uncontrolled with shameful actors. This has sparked an ongoing struggle in which unsubstantiated beliefs against public health experts and scientists, as well as the press, which convey their understanding to the public, are being questioned.
Who wins? Some scientists decided to consult the British public to find out. The result is a mix of good and bad news. No conspiracy theory has reached the point where a third of the public still believes it. However, young people who rely on social media for more information are more likely to believe.
The survey, carried out by a team at King’s College London, was based on three surveys among the British public. The first was a relatively small sample of self-selected respondents. However, two major surveys (over 2,000 people each) followed, which were conducted to accurately reflect the demographics of Britain. Respondents were asked questions about whether certain statements about the pandemic are true and about their own behavior regarding compliance with the country's social restrictions. They were also asked where they got their information about SARS-CoV-2 from.
(If you'd rather see the data in graphical form, look at some of the graphs that researchers created from the survey responses.)
Some of the statements involved in the right-or-wrong assessment are known conspiracy theories, such as the evidence-free suggestion that the coronavirus was generated in a laboratory, which is against the evidence of virus development. Others related to issues that are the subject of other widespread conspiracy theories, such as "the current pandemic is part of a global effort to force everyone to vaccinate whether they like it or not". After all, some are just bizarre, like the suggestion that "there is no clear evidence that corona virus really exists".
On a positive note, only 7 percent of those surveyed believe that we lack evidence of the existence of the virus. The belief that 5G networks are involved is 8 percent. When you look at the vaccine conspiracy, things creep in only slightly.
On the less good side, almost a third of the UK population believes in a number of obvious conspiracy theories, such as the government hiding the number of deaths or that the virus was created in a laboratory. The health authorities clearly have work to do.
So what can we say about the people who believe this stuff? The researchers tested various correlations. One that came out consistently was that people who were prone to conspiratorial thinking tended to be younger and spend more time using social media when looking for information about the pandemic. The most visited website in this group? YouTube, closely followed by Facebook. Getting information from friends and family wasn't great, but the association with conspiracy beliefs was weaker than that of social media.
The use of social media for research purposes also seemed to be most closely linked to the more stupid conspiracy theories, such as whether we know the virus actually exists, or to blame for its spread on 5G mobile networks.
The use of social media for pandemic information was more common among younger participants. older people tended to rely more on mainstream media. This is important in the UK, where there is a formal process with potential penalties for television and print publications that send or publish misinformation. This does not apply to social media companies.
Unfortunately, people seem to act according to their beliefs. Those who believe in conspiracy theories – particularly the idea that the virus may not exist or that its symptoms are caused by cellular signals – said they were more likely to engage in higher-risk behaviors. These behaviors include friends or family visiting them at home, or going outside or working, although there are symptoms that could indicate COVID-19. These results are in line with a number of previous studies that found that people who believe in medical conspiracies are less likely to be involved in what the researchers call "health-protecting behavior."
Digital media literacy
What can we do against it? Some apparently positive news emerged in a PNAS study released Monday, "Intervention to Digital Literacy Increases the Distinction Between Mainstream and False News in the United States and India." The intervention itself was simple and inexpensive: let people read the Facebook page "Tips for Detecting False Messages". Unfortunately, the effect was fairly small at best – for example, the rate of fake headlines, which was rated as accurate, was reduced from 32 to 24 percent – and varied between experiments.
So there is no obvious silver ball that lets many more people see when they come across misinformation online. For the time being, reality is in a continuing struggle against the Internet.
Psychological Medicine, 2020. DOI: 10.1017 / S003329172000224X (About DOIs).