Addiction to social media news amplifies COVID-19 conspiracy theories, report says

People who get most of their news from social media like Facebook and YouTube are much more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, a study from Kings College London has found.

The report also suggests that those who rely on social media for information are much more likely to ignore government messages on safety during the pandemic and more likely to disobey lockdown rules.

The research was published earlier this month in the journal Psychological medicine.

Researchers from Kings College London and polling firm Ipsos MORI have examined a range of conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic.

“We have defined conspiracy theories as explanations for the COVID-19 pandemic that suggest it was intentional, so either the virus was artificially created or the virus is not as dangerous as people think it is. think and something else is being used to deliberately cause what most of us believe to be the symptoms of the virus, or the idea that there may not be a problem at all,” said said Daniel Allington, lead author of the report, in a June 24 Skype interview with VOA. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.

A 5G logo is displayed on a screen outside the showroom at Huawei’s campus in Shenzhen city, Guangdong province of China.

A prominent conspiracy theory is that 5G mobile technology is causing the disease. In recent weeks, dozens of 5G mobile telecommunications towers have been destroyed across Britain. According to police, the belief that masts are the cause of respiratory disease appears to have motivated many attacks.

The researchers surveyed 2,254 UK residents. Overall, 8% believed 5G technology was the source of the pandemic. Of those people, 60% said they got their information from YouTube. Of the 92% of people who don’t believe the 5G conspiracy theory, only 14% said their information came from YouTube.

Among people who think the coronavirus doesn’t exist at all, around 56% cited Facebook as their main source of information. Allington says the most disturbing discovery has been the willingness of those who believe conspiracy theories about the disease to break quarantine and lockdown rules.

“We found that people who went out, went out, or went to work despite knowing they were possible symptoms of coronavirus were much more likely to get their information from social media,” Allington told VOA.

This presents a health risk that needs to be considered, says UK lawmaker Damian Collins, co-founder of the “Infotagion” group which aims to tackle misinformation about the pandemic.

“A lot of that content is still there and a lot of the time when it gets sent back to social media companies, they don’t act immediately to remove that content,” Collins told VOA via Skype, adding that he was very concerned about the role social media could play in any vaccination program.

“If we get to a position where we have a vaccine and for the vaccine to be effective, we need the vast majority of people to agree to take it. It is important that people have confidence in this. And if people are spreading conspiracy theories and lies about the vaccine and trying to persuade people not to take it, then there is a serious risk to public health. »

FILE - The Twitter and Facebook logos are seen with binary cyber codes in this illustration, November 26, 2019.

FILE – The Twitter and Facebook logos are seen with binary cyber codes in this illustration, November 26, 2019.

Facebook, YouTube and Twitter say they have removed hundreds of thousands of videos and posts related to COVID-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent harm.

In written evidence submitted to the UK parliament, Facebook said that during the month of April it had “posted warning labels on around 50 million COVID-19 related content on Facebook”, adding: “… When people saw these warning labels, 95% of the time they didn’t click through to view the original content. »

Despite these claims, the internal systems in place to deal with misinformation remain opaque, says Allington of Kings College London. “These systems must be open to audit by democratically accountable bodies,” he told VOA.

The social media giants are facing a backlash on multiple fronts. More than 150 companies – including Starbucks and Coca-Cola – have stopped buying Facebook advertising over concerns about misinformation and hate speech.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump in May signed an executive order to strip social media companies of legal immunity for user-posted content, after Twitter tagged one of his tweets with a fact-checking notice. “If Twitter wasn’t honorable and you were going to have a guy like this as judge and jury, I think you would shut it down, as far as I’m concerned. But I’d have to go through legal process to do that,” Trump told reporters on May 28.