People with a poor understanding of quantitative information are more likely to endorse myths about COVID-19 and those who believe such misinformation are less likely to follow public health guidance such as wearing a mask in public, according to new research. The study appears in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
“Misinformation has been one of the major focal points of our research since early 2018. Misinformation about COVID-19 has rapidly become a significant problem, with the WHO declaring an ‘infodemic’ and people setting fire to mobile phone masts because of conspiracies surrounding 5G networks,” said Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden, two co-authors of the study who are affiliated with the Social Decision-Making Lab at the University of Cambridge.
“We were interested in finding out what predicts belief in misinformation about the virus, and whether belief in such misinformation impacts key health behaviors.”
The researchers surveyed 5,000 individuals from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, Spain, and Mexico between mid-April and early May of 2020 regarding popular myths about COVID-19. The survey also collected a host of demographic information, assessed the extent to which participants had complied with public health guidance, and included three different numeracy tests.
Most participants viewed the COVID-19 myths to be unreliable, but the researchers found that certain coronavirus-related conspiracy theories had taken root in significant portions of the population.
The conspiracy deemed most valid was the claim that COVID-19 was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Between 22-23% of respondents in the UK and United States rated this assertion as “reliable.” In Ireland this rose to 26%, while in Mexico and Spain it jumped to 33% and 37%, respectively.
This was followed by the idea that the pandemic is “part of a plot to enforce global vaccination,” with 22% of the Mexican population rating this as reliable, along with 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK.
The conspiracy theory that 5G telecommunication towers are worsening COVID-19 symptoms held sway over smaller but still significant segments: 16% in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US.
“While conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 aren’t supported by a majority of people in any country we surveyed, substantial numbers of people find conspiracies such as the idea that 5G radiation causes coronavirus symptoms or that the virus was created in a lab in Wuhan reliable,” Roozenbeek and van der Linden told PsyPost.
“We also find that believing more in such misinformation is associated with a reduced self-reported willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and lower willingness to indicate complying with common health guidance measures such as wearing a mask or social distancing.”
The researchers found several factors that were associated with susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation.
Political conservatism was linked to a slightly higher susceptibility to misinformation in every country except in the USA and in the UK. Being older was associated with lower susceptibility to misinformation in every country except in Mexico. Self-identifying as a member of a minority was associated with heightened susceptibility to misinformation in every country except the UK. Higher trust in scientists was linked to lower belief in misinformation in all countries.
The most consistent predictor of susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation, however, was performance on the numeracy tests. Those tests did “not merely measure mathematical ability” but instead assessed “the ability of individuals to understand and use quantitative information more broadly,” the researchers noted.
“Our findings are consistent with a large literature which finds that reflective and analytical thinking are consistently associated with reduced susceptibility to misinformation,” they added.
For example, one test asked: “Out of 1,000 people in a small town 500 are members of a choir. Out of these 500 members in the choir 100 are men. Out of the 500 inhabitants that are not in the choir 300 are men. What is the probability that a randomly drawn man is a member of the choir? Please indicate the probability in percent.”
Another test item asked: “What represents the highest chance of something happening: 1 in 10, 1 in 1000, or 1 in 100?”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“It would be great if we could replicate this study in other countries, as there are several hypotheses that we’d still like to test. Also, we weren’t able to control for other factors that may be important in shaping people’s belief in misinformation such as prior attitudes and religiosity,” Roozenbeek and van der Linden told PsyPost.
The researchers have also created a short online game intended to help “inoculate” players against fake news.
“As it happens, in the same week that this study came out, we released Go Viral, a 5-minute online game that trains people to recognize manipulation techniques commonly used in the spread of COVID-19 misinformation such as fearmongering and using fake experts,” Roozenbeek and van der Linden explained.
“This game produced in collaboration with the UK government with support from the WHO and UN can be played at www.goviralgame.com in English, French and German. We hope that this game will contribute to reducing the spread of misinformation about the virus.”
The study, “Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world“, was authored by Jon Roozenbeek, Claudia R. Schneider, Sarah Dryhurst, John Kerr, Alexandra L. J. Freeman, Gabriel Recchia, Anne Marthe van der Bles and Sander van der Linden.