Health & Wellness

Social Media Are Spreading COVID-19 Misinformation

Those who get their news from social media are more likely to dismiss the disease as a threat


A new study from McGill University finds that those who get their news from social media are more likely to have misconceptions about COVID-19 and to skirt public health guidelines.

Researchers surveyed almost 2,500 Canadians and combed through more than two million posts on social media before publishing in the journal Misinformation Review in July. They also analyzed almost 9,000 Canadian news articles on social media and found that misinformation was particularly common on Twitter.

“Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming the primary sources of news and misinformation for Canadians and people around the world,” explained co-author Aengus Bridgman, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the university.

“In the context of a crisis like COVID-19, however, there is good reason to be concerned about the role that the consumption of social media is playing in boosting misperceptions.”

Canadians were asked questions that tested what they knew about the virus and how often they avoided travel, crowded spaces, and in-person contact with friends, family, and acquaintances. Even when taking scientific literacy and socio-economic differences into consideration, researchers found that those who tended to find their news on social media were still less likely to see the virus as a threat, and less likely to adhere to social distancing. The opposite was found among those who got their news by going directly to traditional news sources.

Co-author Taylor Owen, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at the university, says she hopes to see more action from social media platforms to curb the spread of misinformation online.

“There is growing evidence that misinformation circulating on social media poses public health risks,” she said.

The authors argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by what they term an “infodemic,” a global spread of misinformation they say poses a serious risk for public health.

“Infodemics are concerning because the spread of false or misleading information has the capacity to change transmission patterns and consequently the scale and lethality of a pandemic,” they wrote.

Photo: iStock/bigtunaonline.