Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased attention has been given to fake news and misinformation and how they have impacted our response to the pandemic. Research has shown that believing fake news and misinformation related to COVID-19 has been related to how consumers respond or don’t, to the pandemic. This includes decreased efforts among consumers to help curb the spread of the virus, such as refusal to wear face coverings, engaging in social distancing, vaccine hesitancy, and increased prejudicial views toward Asian Americans. While the efforts to combat fake news and misinformation regarding COVID-19 are commendable, fake news and misinformation are only pieces of a larger puzzle. Other important factors, which are rarely discussed, are a growing distrust in mainstream news media and medical science. This distrust may be just as important, if not more important, than fake news and misinformation when considering failed responses to the pandemic.
There are numerous reasons why consumers develop and maintain a distrust in medical science and mainstream news media. There are legitimate historical reasons for why some have developed distrust in medical science, such as the Tuskegee experiment and the prescription of thalidomide during pregnancy that led to severe disabilities among thousands of children. There are also concerns regarding pharmaceutical drugs that the FDA had previously approved, only later to report dangerous, negative side effects. While this is not an exhaustive list of causes of distrust in medical science, it does lend to the need to address these issues, rather than try to ignore them, and attempt to find a resolution to rebuild trust in medical science.
The way that mainstream news frames, or presents, information to consumers is generally biased along partisan lines. The effects of mainstream news framing have been documented for the COVID-19 pandemic, among many other topics. Some research has found that how mainstream news frames information can have a direct impact on consumers, altering opinions, leading to attitude polarization, and impacting behaviors.
The framing in mainstream news may be part of the reason why there is a growing, widespread distrust in mainstream news media. Almost 80% of Americans report being skeptical about the information reported via mainstream news. The increase in alternative news sources, such as Facebook and other social media platforms, is associated with an increased tendency to question information reported in mainstream news media. There are four aspects of media trust that are related to consumer confidence: journalists covering relevant topics, focusing on facts, presenting information accurately, and providing clear commentary. Media framing and reporting bias are in direct conflict with these key aspects of media trust, no doubt leading to distrust in mainstream news media.
The current social, political, and economic environment can directly impact trust in mainstream news, alongside the demographic characteristics of consumers. Generally, demographic characteristics of interest tend to be race and ethnicity, age, biological sex, and socioeconomic indicators. Political orientation also plays a key role in that Democrats generally report higher levels of media trust compared to Republicans.
Direct involvement with the topics and issues being covered by mainstream news media, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, generally reduces consumers’ trust in mainstream news reporting. This growing distrust of mainstream news media could lead to negative effects among consumers, such as a decrease in trusting or believing science, increased political polarization, and changing aspects of what is considered truth, fact, and reality. Distrust in mainstream news media can also lead to a lack of cooperation regarding recommendations made by the news media, such as preventative measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
If consumers do not trust medical science and view mainstream news media as fake, they then turn to other avenues to seek news information such as Facebook and other social media platforms. This should be no real surprise as Park and colleagues (2020) reported that an increase in social media use for consuming news information was related to an increase in distrust for mainstream news and that this relationship was a universal one. Essentially, if mainstream news media is deemed as false, then fake news and misinformation must be true.
This becomes problematic considering that the majority of fake news and misinformation is spread via Facebook and other social media platforms. Facebook collects a large amount of data from users, which many have deemed an invasion of privacy. This data is then used to create algorithms that decide which posts are promoted to users, including advertisements that make up Facebook’s main revenue. These algorithms lead to echo chambers and confirmation bias, which increase belief in the information that users are presented with via Facebook. During COVID-19, Facebook began tagging fake news stories that were posted on their platform, which is largely ineffective in curbing belief in fake news. Additionally, the “disinformation dozen” have used Facebook and other social media platforms to post misleading information related to COVID-19. Historically, Facebook has been pressured to do more about fake news on their platform, and has recently been under fire for choosing “profit over public safety.” Unfortunately, our legislation has not kept up with advances in technology. While a start at curbing fake news and misinformation may be a reining in of Facebook and other social media platforms, it may not be enough if we do not rebuild trust in medical science and mainstream news media.
(Co-Editors’ Note: Chrysalis Wright was a recipient of the 2021 Distinguished Scientific Contribution to Media Psychology and Technology from the APA Society of Media Psychology and Technology.)