Individuals who rely heavily on social media for news, and who trust social media as a source of information, are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories, according to new research published in the journal Public Understanding of Science.
A number of conspiracy theories have emerged in the wake of the outbreak of SARS-COV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, such as the belief that newly developed 5G mobile networks were secretly causing the disease. The spread of such misinformation has put pressure on social media platforms like Facebook, and researchers were interested in learning more about the pathway from social media news consumption to conspiracy belief formation.
“My research focuses on the impact of emerging technology including social media on politics and health. I’ve studied misinformation and disinformation in the context of various topics including COVID-19. The influence of social media news use is core to this research program, hence I studied these variables,” said study author Porismita Borah, an associate professor at Washington State University
The researchers surveyed 760 adults recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform. The participants were roughly split between Democrat and Republican. The majority of them, 63.1%, used Facebook and 47.3% used Twitter daily. They answered a range of questions related to the level of their social media news use and trust as well as the tendency to identify misinformation.
The participants indicated whether they believed COVID-19 conspiracy theories and they indicated whether they believed in other general conspiracy theories, such as the belief that the moon landing was a hoax or that Princess Diana was intentionally killed by a British intelligence agency.
Those who reported getting most of their news and information through social media sites tended to endorse more generic conspiracy beliefs and also more conspiracy beliefs related to COVID-19. This relationship was particularly strong among those who trusted the news they found on social media.
In other words, participants who frequently used social media for news and who agreed with the statement “I trust news I find on social media sites” were the most likely to also agree with statements such as “The COVID-2019 is a weapon of the biological warfare used by foreign countries.” The researchers found that the tendency to identify misinformation did have a protective effect, but only for participants with lower trust in social media.
“People should be very careful about what information they trust and who they trust. Our findings show that in general social media news use is associated with higher misperceptions. This association is larger when people trust the information they get from social media,” Borah told PsyPost.
“So if people blindly trust the information on social media they are more susceptible to these misperceptions. We also find that being literate about the information and able to identify misinformation is helpful to mitigate this association. So, be aware of the information you consume online. Cross-check the information and source and do not blindly trust the information.”
The study controlled for gender, age, and party affiliation. But the researchers only obtained correlational data, and thus cannot make claims regarding causality.
“Results are from one cross-sectional survey,” Borah said. “More research needs to be done in this area to understand these relationships better and examine other factors that may help to fight misinformation and disinformation in the future.”
The study, “The dangers of blind trust: Examining the interplay among social media news use, misinformation identification, and news trust on conspiracy beliefs“, was authored by Xizhu Xiao, Porismita Borah, and Yan Su.