Social Media Use Is Linked to COVID Misperceptions

New research suggests where people get their news influences what they believe.

Posted Aug 15, 2020

Fake news has repeatedly undermined efforts to protect Americans from the coronavirus pandemic. Now a new study indicates that where people get their news influences whether they believe misinformation. Those who get their news from social media seem more likely to believe falsehoods about COVID-19.

As a doctor, I get my medical information from validated scientific sources. But I can always count on my social media feed to keep me informed on the latest fake health secrets and dangers that “your doctor doesn’t know about.” How else would I find out? Legitimate medical sources don’t cover this misinformation.

 Markus Winkler/Unsplash
Source: Markus Winkler/Unsplash

This week alone I learned of ridiculous ideas like this: eating vegetables is actually destroying my gut. Also, if I just start consuming a rare fruit all the weight I gained from stress eating during the pandemic is going to melt off. But these silly claims were nothing compared to how hard I laughed over the recent trend promoted by Instagram influencers: perineal sunning.

Here’s how it works: you get naked, go outside on a sunny day, contort your body, and spread your butt cheeks so you can aim your anus directly at the sun. That’s right!

“But why?” you might ask. According to the social media influencers, just a minute of direct anal sunlight will give you the health benefits of a full day in the sun. And that means vitamin D!

Never mind that your perianal area is low in protective skin pigment and will develop sunburn quickly. Or that tanning increases your risk of melanoma. It’s an Insta trend! And it was so influential, Cosmopolitan actually ran an article to convince readers not to do it.

Social Media is powerful

That’s the power of social media. It can introduce people to practices that sound like Saturday Night Live skits... and people actually do it. We must understand the power social media holds over how we perceive information. Otherwise, we cannot grasp why people underestimate the danger of the coronavirus infection that has killed more than 150,000 Americans so far.

But it may have less to do with social media itself, and more to do with whether we see social media as a news source.

According to the new study published in The Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Misinformation Review, people who get their news mainly from social media are more likely to believe falsehoods about coronavirus. They are also less likely to practice social distancing or to think COVID-19 is a threat. Conversely, those who get their news from more traditional news media are more likely to follow public health recommendations.

"There is growing evidence that misinformation circulating on social media poses public health risks," says co-author Taylor Owen, an Associate Professor at McGill University, in a press release. According to their analysis of millions of tweets and thousands of news articles, false or inaccurate information about coronavirus is far more likely to be circulated on social media than in the traditional news media.

“Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly becoming the primary sources of news and misinformation for Canadians and people around the world. In the context of a crisis like COVID-19, however, there is good reason to be concerned about the role that the consumption of social media is playing in boosting misperceptions,” says co-author Aengus Bridgman, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at McGill University in Canada.

Misinformation about masks is terrifying mothers

Social media has always been a blessing and a curse for mothers. Moms connect and support each other, often in social media groups. And we also terrify each other with the latest thing to worry about for our kids. Statements on social media can drive parenting anxiety like nothing else.

Right now parents in many areas of America are contemplating their children’s return to school during the coronavirus pandemic. Wearing masks and social distancing in class are essential parts of plans to do this safely. So far so good.

Enter social media. My Facebook messages have been flooded with mothers asking me whether it’s true that masks cause lung damage. This falsehood is all over social media and moms are worried about their children. And that’s not funny, because it’s scaring people about one of our most powerful tools against coronavirus.

To be clear: masks are awesome! They are our first line of defense against COVID-19. They protect us and others. And masks do not impair our breathing! Doctors have been using social media to post pictures of their workouts in masks and their perfect oxygen readings.

But scary misinformation spreads much faster on social media than good news. You might say misinformation is viral.

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An earlier version of this article was published on Forbes.com