The use of social media and conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, are linked to reduced engagement with behaviors meant to slow the disease’s spread, according to new research published in Psychological Medicine.
“I’ve been studying the role of social media in spreading conspiracy theories for several years. I also knew from other people’s research that there was a link between belief in conspiracy theories and reluctance to follow public health guidance,” explained study author Daniel Allington, a senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London.
“When I learnt that COVID-19 related conspiracy theories were reaching millions of people through social media, I realised that there was an urgent need to find out about the possible effects that this might be having.”
Allington and his colleagues analyzed data from 5,453 residents of the United Kingdom, which was collected with three surveys. They found that those who believed in coronavirus conspiracies, such as the belief that the virus was created in a laboratory or that symptoms of COVID-19 are connected to 5G mobile networks, were significantly less likely to report engaging in health-protective behaviors, such as frequently washing their hands or avoiding close contact with others.
The researchers also found that respondents who reported using social media as a source of information about COVID-19 were more likely to endorse these conspiracy beliefs.
“British people who get their information about COVID-19 from social media are more likely to believe in untrue conspiracy theories and less likely to be following public health guidance designed to control the spread of COVID-19. However, the reverse is true for British people who get their information about COVID-19 from what we call the ‘legacy media’: TV, radio, newspapers, and magazines,” Allington told PsyPost.
The new findings are in line with research from the United States, which found that mainstream media use was associated with accurate beliefs about COVID-19 while social media use was associated with misinformation. But it is unlikely that the findings extend to every country, Allington said.
“The finding of positive effects from legacy media is probably related to the fact that, in the UK, newspapers and broadcasters are independently regulated but privately owned and free from state control. I would not expect to find positive effects in countries where the state deliberately uses legacy media to spread misinformation — for example, in Russia, China, North Korea, Belarus, and Iran,” he explained.
“Conspiracy theories are just one of the many forms of misinformation that now circulate freely on social media. As I’ve argued in a separate piece of peer-reviewed research, they are social harmful and have played a historic role in inspiring and justifying both terrorism and genocide. We need to stop thinking of them as a harmless joke because they’re really not,” Allington added.
The study, “Health-protective behaviour, social media usage and conspiracy belief during the COVID-19 public health emergency“, was authored by Daniel Allington, Bobby Duffy, Simon Wessely, Nayana Dhavan, and James Rubin.