Does Stress Promote Posting Misinformation?
During a time of COVID, can we believe what we read?
Posted May 29, 2020
It was noted, from the start of this pandemic, that a striking feature of the crisis was the “coincidence of virology and virality.”1 That is to say that people’s views about what was happening concerning the virus spread as rapidly as the virus itself.
This rapid dissemination of views, information, and misinformation about the pandemic was credited with influencing public panic regarding the virus and its effects. It has been implied that such panic led to, for example, unnecessary bulk buying, as rumours about impending lockdown restrictions took hold.2 What does current research suggest about why such misinformation is spread, and what can be done to stop it?
We do not have to rely on our perceptions of false news and views about the virus to support a statement about misinformation and panic. The level of such misinformation has been quantified in a number of studies. One study found that about 25% of all tweets related to coronavirus and its effects included misinformation, and a further 17% included information that could not be verified.3
The level of misinformation was higher among informal (personal) Twitter accounts, which accounted for around 33% of such misinformation, and from unverified Twitter accounts (which accounted for around 30%). Thankfully, accounts owned by official healthcare organisations were responsible for only about 10% of the misinformation.3
Of course, providing misinformation is one thing, but the key to a misinformation pandemic is the retransmission of that misinformation. This too has been examined,4 and the results suggest that the source of the (mis)information is not a prime concern when people retweet a link. Information from sources that may be thought of as credible (such as public health organisations) are retweeted at a very small rate — less than 1% of tweets about coronavirus shared such information. Luckily, at the other end of the spectrum, the study found that sources that could "confidently" be labeled as "misinformation purveyors" were also not shared at a great rate (barely 2%). Sadly, this was double the rate from credible sources.4
Apart from illustrating the role of social media in promulgating information, not all of it helpful, these findings take on a new significance when we realise that such misinformation produces panic.2 Such panic and misinformation from constant exposure to reports of a crisis has been noted to increase stress responses and generate anxiety that in turn lead to negative health effects.
These negative health effects are not only directly related to an individual’s levels of stress and anxiety (those health impacts may take some time to develop). Instead, they are strongly related to “ … misplaced health-protective and help-seeking behaviors that can overburden health care facilities and tax available resources.”5
So the question is, why do people do it? Why do they spread misinformation, stress, and anxiety through the community, and bring more danger to all, including themselves?
Clearly, some of this is malicious, and some political, but most is probably generated by people with no particular thought or purpose. In fact, a clear candidate for why they unthinkingly spread misinformation is, unsurprisingly, that they do not think about what they are doing. Under conditions of stress, it is known that increased levels of corticosteroids are present, and these hormones are related to poorer cognitive function.6 In laboratory studies, individuals who exhibit high levels of cortisol levels under stress have been shown to have poorer divided attention compared to when they are not under stress.7 We also know that exposure to social media and the internet is associated with stress, and the reduced immune function that this can bring8 and exposure to the internet can make people more impulsive.9
It may be that a combination of being in a highly stressful pandemic, and exposure to the medium of social media that is known to be associated with stress, will produce an assault on people’s ability to discriminate the information that they are receiving. This situation implies that much of the misinformation that is spread on social media may be transmitted because their thought processes are impaired by the situation. Indeed, there is now evidence that this may be so.
In a recent study, a large sample of around 1,000 people, who were representative of the population of the USA in terms of their age, gender, ethnicity, and location, participated in a simple experiment.10 The tweets containing information about COVID that these people would circulate were assessed. However, for some of these individuals, a simple message was placed on their social media account, reminding them to consider the likely veracity of the information that they were considering sending to others. This simple intervention reduced the spread of misinformation significantly. According to the authors: “…..we find support for the idea that people share false claims about COVID-19 in part because they simply fail to think sufficiently about whether or not content is accurate when deciding what to share.”10
The current research seems to suggest that there is a lot of misinformation shared, and this is especially true in times of stress. Much of the spreading of such misinformation, and the resulting potential panic, may be simply the result of stress impairing cognition. The difficulty is, of course, as the misinformation spreads, the panic and stress increase, and it is then increasingly unlikely that people will stop and think unless reminded to do so.
1. Depoux, A., Martin, S., Karafillakis, E., Preet, R., Wilder-Smith, A., & Larson, H. (2020). The pandemic of social media panic travels faster than the COVID-19 outbreak.
2. The Guardian (26.5.20). People were like animals!' How supermarket staff watched the coronavirus crisis unfold. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/may/26/people-were-like-animals-how-supermarket-staff-watched-coronavirus-crisis-unfold
3. Kouzy, R., Abi Jaoude, J., Kraitem, A., El Alam, M. B., Karam, B., Adib, E., ... & Baddour, K. (2020). Coronavirus goes viral: quantifying the COVID-19 misinformation epidemic on Twitter. Cureus, 12(3).
4. Singh, L., Bansal, S., Bode, L., Budak, C., Chi, G., Kawintiranon, K., ... & Wang, Y. (2020). A first look at COVID-19 information and misinformation sharing on Twitter. arXiv preprint arXiv:2003.13907.
5. Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology.
6. Mauri, M., Sinforiani, E., Bono, G., Vignati, F., Berselli, M.E., Attanasio, R., & Nappi, G. (1993). Memory impairment in Cushing's disease. Acta Neurol. Scand., 87, 52-55.
7. Bohnen, N., Houx, P., Nicolson, N., & Jolles, J. (1990). Cortisol reactivity and cognitive performance in a continuous mental task paradigm. Biol. Psychol., 31, 107-116.
8. Reed, P., Vile, R., Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Problematic internet usage and immune function. PloS one, 10(8).
9. Reed, P., Osborne, L. A., Romano, M., & Truzoli, R. (2015). Higher impulsivity after exposure to the internet for individuals with high but not low levels of self-reported problematic internet behaviours. Computers in Human Behavior, 49, 512-516.
10. Pennycook, G., McPhetres, J., Zhang, Y., & Rand, D. (2020). Fighting COVID-19 misinformation on social media: Experimental evidence for a scalable accuracy nudge intervention.