People who rely on social media for news and information are more likely to believe misinformation related to COVID-19, according to a recent study conducted at Washington State University.

Researcher Yan Su, a doctoral candidate with WSU’s Murrow College of Communication, said he looked at more than 3,000 responses to the 2020 American National Election Studies Exploratory Testing Survey conducted at the start of the pandemic. Su said he narrowed the field to about 480 respondents who said they believed one of two COVID-19 conspiracy theories and compared the results with responses to questions related to social media use and trusting science.

He said his findings indicate social media is a fertile environment for COVID-19 misinformation.

“Social media has no fact checkers ... so compared to print media or broadcasting media, social media is likely to be a misinformation hub,” Su said. “(This is) because there’s free access, and the dissemination of information is of low cost, and people are easily believing (messaging) consistent with their preexisting beliefs and their preexisting ideologies.”

In addition to utilizing fact checkers to flag potentially misleading information, Su said these sites could also combat the falsities on their platforms by providing literacy education to users. He said this would allow them to develop skills for sorting fact from fiction when confronted with misinformation.

Su said his research also revealed traits that weaken the effect of misinformation on a given person. The survey included questions about whether they think scientists could solve the crisis and how highly they regard the opinions of other social actors like politicians. Su said he found that those who arbored greater trust in scientists were less likely to be deceived by misinformation.

“I also found that the more people prefer talking with others who share different opinions and ideologies with their own, interpersonally, they’re less likely to hold strong on their misperception,” Su said. “This discussion heterogeneity can help people do some self-reflection and self-correction of their own beliefs.”

Su said people who listen to a more diverse set of perspectives that challenge their pre-existing ideologies are less likely to fall victim to the echo chamber phenomenon — where people seek out information and perspectives that support their existing beliefs.

As research continues, Su said one step that would help scientists push his research further would be to expand the sample size to include more people. While the initial sample was diverse enough to reliably reflect trends among American populations, Su said a larger sample would help paint the picture in yet finer detail.

He said another step that would help further this research would be to include more questions in future surveys addressing social media use and COVID-19 misinformation to draw more direct, causal conclusions from the data.

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

Recommended for you