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Social Media Study Finds COVID-19 Misinformation Abounds

Man is typing on laptop computer keyboard
Man is typing on laptop computer keyboard

More and more people are turning to social media for information. And not all of it is true. This new practice, researchers say, is making it hard for people to make good decisions about medical care.

Social media is pervasive and a new survey from the University of South Florida says more and more people are turning to such platforms for information on COVID-19, potentially to their own peril.

Lead researcher Stephen Neely is an associate professor in the USF School of Public Affairs. He said nearly two-thirds of survey respondents used social media for information about the coronavirus, at least a little. And nearly half of those in the survey use it a lot.

“The kind of interesting paradox here is that while people are heavily reliant on social media…the majority of folks are saying that they don't trust the information they see there, particularly about COVID-19,“ said Neely.

“Only about a third of people said that they were very confident in the accuracy of the information they were seeing about COVID-19, a large majority agree that there's a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media.“

Neely said people's scrolling habits and the algorithms of various social media platforms have created a deepening echo chamber effect around the pandemic.

And since the issue has been politicized, he added, that makes it harder to frame it as health crisis instead of a political one.

That leads some people to follow the advice of politicians rather than medical doctors.

But can that be turned around?

"Sure, it's a big challenge. And really, one of the big questions that researchers and public officials face in the coming years is kind of how to speak into these echo chambers in a way that's effective, because right now, unfortunately, a lot of folks don't really want to hear what the other side has to say, regardless of its merits, or regardless of its value in decision-making," Neely said.

Neely and his team also found only 26% of those surveyed are fact-checking the information on COVID-19 they've found on social media with their doctors or other medical professionals.

Neely suggests one way the Biden Administration might help to reframe the discussion would be to get the public health officials back out in front of the conversation.

The findings are the second part of a survey of 1,003 voting-age Americans conducted by the USF School of Public Affairs, in partnership with The Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF, between Jan. 9 and 12.

The poll was reported with a margin of error of +/- 3%, and with a confidence level of 95%.

A third round of forthcoming results will look at changes in personal and professional online behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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