Social media may have helped connect people during the pandemic when in-person contact was not feasible. But a new study shows it also may have prolonged and even exacerbated the health crisis with a ceaseless barrage of misinformation.
The study found conspiracy theories, the promotion of ineffective “cures,” and other inaccurate information resulted in a disregard of public health directives and may have prompted many social media users to ignore health news and guidance altogether.
The survey, which focused on millennials and Gen Z, was conducted by WPP’s Wunderman Thompson, The University of Melbourne and Pollfish, in collaboration with the World Health Organization. It covered approximately 23,500 respondents aged 18-40 years across 24 countries worldwide, who were reached on their mobile devices between late October 2020 and early January 2021.
Awareness of misinformation, or “fake news” is high, but so is apathy, the study found. Nearly 60% said they were “very aware” of the fact that COVID-19-related information on social media or messaging apps could be false. But 35% said they ignore information they know to be false. Only 24% report it, 19% comment on it and just 8% stop following people or sources of information known to be false.
The obvious challenge, per the report, is in recruiting social media users to “actively counter” fake news “rather than letting it slide.”
The study found that pandemic fatigue is setting in and that 58% of respondents said they felt “overwhelmed” by all the COVID-19-related information they are exposed to. They also yearn for normalcy, whatever that means in the post-pandemic era.
Health communicators now have what the study calls a “critical window” to emphasize that a return to “normal” will occur sooner only if people stay vigilant and comply with health guidelines whether it’s wearing masks, social distancing or getting vaccinated.
Despite all the misinformation, interest in vaccines is rising and will likely continue to rise as governments roll out immunization programs. With over half of those surveyed expressing interest in vaccine information, the study concludes there is currently an opportunity to better shape public receptiveness to vaccines and allay fears.
But don’t rely on celebrities or influencers to spread the word—the study found that over 40% of respondents identify WHO as their preferred source of vaccine-related information. Over 57% said they felt their government wasn’t giving them the full picture and 59% said the media was not telling them everything.
More from the study can be accessed here.