Fact-Checking the Community Spread of COVID-19 Health Misinformation

Chrysalis L. Wright, PhD, Jeremy Boldon, Aya Casden, Kwame Gatlin, Kassandra Hincapie, &
Stephanie Sommer

University of Central Florida
Contact: Chrysalis.Wright@ucf.edu

As social functioning and society have evolved alongside COVID-19, it has become evident that every human being across the globe has been experiencing both an individual and collective traumatic event (Mukhtar, 2020). At the time of this writing (February 5, 2022) 75,937,801 people in the United States have contracted COVID-19, resulting in the deaths of 894,810 people (CDC, 2022a). Almost 76% of people in the United States have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (CDC, 2022b). Even so, some have decided not to take measures recommended by the CDC to help curb the spread of the virus. Some believe that COVID-19 is a hoax (Schaffer, 2020), that it was implemented by the U.S. Government in an attempt to reduce constitutional freedoms (Gerstmann, 2020), or wholeheartedly believe in pseudoscience and medical misinformation related to COVID-19 regarding its prevention and treatment (Caulfield, 2020). Not only do some believe that COVID-19 was intentionally created and spread, but that the virus and its effects were being exaggerated to damage the image of former president Donald Trump. When conspiracy theories run rampant, some individuals may choose to abstain from the appropriately identified health-related behaviors (Uscinski et al., 2020). Misinformation has become so bad that some researchers view it as a type of risk of its own (Krause et al., 2020). 

There are various reasons why some people may have a distrust in science, the CDC, and mainstream news coverage of the current COVID-19 pandemic. It has been reported that almost 75% of Americans are at least somewhat skeptical about the information reported in mainstream news  (Lee & Hosam, 2020). This distrust may be directly related to the political partisan framing among mainstream news media outlets (Chung et al., 2021; Hubner, 2021; Lukacovic, 2020). Alongside the current political, economic, and social environment, obtaining information from alternative news sources and the ever-changing landscape of social media (Fletcher & Park, 2017) can lead to a distrust in mainstream news media outlets (Tsfati & Ariely, 2014). Direct involvement with what is being reported in the news, such as contracting COVID-19 or witnessing a family member or friend has it, can also reduce consumers’ trust in media coverage (Gunther & Lasorsa, 1986). This distrust can lead to reduced trust in science (Pechar et al., 2018) and push consumers to not only seek information elsewhere but also refuse to follow any recommendations made by such scientific organizations as the CDC (Freimuth et al., 2014; Tsfati & Cohen, 2012).

Factors Related to Believing Misinformation

According to several studies, consumers who identify as conservative, as compared to liberals, are more likely to believe misinformation related to COVID-19 (Calvillo et al., 2020; Levy, 2021). Consumers are more likely to see mainstream news media as the producers of misinformation (Krause et al., 2020), rather than as providers of factual information. There has been a slow progression of distrust since the 1970s when the first reports of conservatives becoming less trustful of science and researchers began (Gauchat, 2012). For some consumers, if real information is fake, then where do they obtain “real” information? Of course, right-leaning mainstream news coverage that casts doubt on reputable experts and spreads misinformation does not help (Motta et al., 2020). This leads directly to the consumption, acceptance, and belief of misinformation and fake news (Wright, 2020). 

However, believing misinformation related to the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 is not solely based on political orientation and beliefs. Even though research has demonstrated that conservatives are more likely to believe fake news and misinformation, it is actually a subset of conservatives who are more likely to do so, such as those who have low levels of conscientiousness and an increased desire for chaos (Kakkar & Lawson, 2022). Varying information processing tendencies, reliance on heuristics, and ideologically motivated reasoning all play a role (Scheufele & Krause, 2019; Trumbo, 2002). The emotionality and sensationalism of misinformation portrayed with fear- and valued-laden content (Krause et al., 2020; Mukhtar, 2020) increases the likelihood that it will be believed. Excessive social media use, increased stress (Holman et al., 2020), and feelings of anxiety are associated with accepting misinformation as true (Mukhtar, 2020). Consumers who hold a predisposition to reject authority tend to view major events through the lens of conspiracy thinking (Mukhtar et al., 2020), desire causal explanations and subjective certainty, and desire feelings of control and security (Douglas et al., 2017) are more likely to believe misinformation related to COVID-19. 

Additionally, much of the COVID-19 health-related misinformation is presented as if it comes from experts. While many of these experts have been discredited by their profession, some consumers may not have the tools to be health literate (Parker et al., 2003) and do not have the skills needed to assess which experts are, in fact, genuine (Levy, 2021). 

Sharing Misinformation

Unfortunately, those who strongly believe health misinformation as true are motivated to spread that misinformation to others (Arunima & Thompson, 2019). Others intentionally spread misinformation, knowing that it is false (Nyilasy, n.d.). Increased access to the internet and social media, while beneficial for sharing accurate health-related information, also makes it easy to spread rumors, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories (Liang et al., 2020). The sharing of false information on the internet has been a lucrative business to many in the online ad industry. Ad agencies will first promote their products on reputable sites. Then, after discovering what is desirable to certain users, the agencies begin to show those desirable ads on cheaper websites that tend to report fake news. This coupled with creating fake traffic on such sites to make their ads appear more valuable are some ways the ad industry helps promote fake news (Braun & Eklund, 2019). However, misinformation does not just spread via the internet and social media. Long before these technological advances, misinformation, and rumors spread via word of mouth and in-person social networks (Kostka et al., 2008). These same mechanisms still apply today, even though current research has specifically focused on fake news and misinformation via social media. Research on the internet-based network alone omits how these mechanisms work together to propel misinformation to a larger audience.

Fact-Checking Local Community Spread

Towards the end of 2021, our research team “stumbled” upon a public Google folder, containing a plethora of pseudoscience and health misinformation related to COVID-19. This folder was shared widely within our local community and was often shared through in-person social networks and word of mouth which, in turn, led others to online misinformation via video, podcasts, websites, and social media outlets. Because the claimed author of the folder stated they had reason to not engage in the peer review process, we decided to assist with some fact-checking and peer review. Ultimately, we found that the content targeted conservative consumers and was based on pseudoscience, health misinformation, and conspiracy theories. While we make our findings public here, we would also like to call for more efforts to strengthen the perceived credibility of those engaged with fact-checking and encourage them to partner with highly trusted organizations such as the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Psychological Association, and the Society for Media Psychology and Technology to disseminate accurate information to the public (Krause et al., 2020). 

References

Gunther, A.C., & Lasorsa, D.L. (1986). Issue importance and perceptions of a hostile media. Journalism Quarterly, 63, 844-848.

(Author Note: We would like to thank Yuval Segev for their contribution to the fact-checking efforts.)

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