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COVID-19: Study Highlights Sources Of Misinformation

Though the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is still relatively new, people already know much about it, including its means of transmission, and how we can slow that transmission down.

Conveying this information to the public, however, can be difficult. Now, a study of more than 1,000 people in the United States finds that their understanding of SARS-CoV-2 closely aligns with the sources of their information.

People in the U.S. who learned about COVID-19 from conservative outlets, social media, and online news aggregators are more often misinformed about the disease, the research concludes.

The study from researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, appears in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review’s April 2020 issue.

Faith Based Events

The study reports the results of a survey that the researchers conducted from March 3 to March 8, 2020, with a nationally representative sample of 1,008 U.S. adults. The survey’s results have a margin of error of ±3.57%.

Good news, bad news

On a positive note, the survey found that 87% of respondents understood the importance of thorough hand washing as a means to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The survey also found, however, some troubling misconceptions that significant numbers of respondents held:

  • 23%, or more than 1 in 5 participants, considered it either probably or definitely true that the Chinese government developed COVID-19 as a bioweapon.
  • 10%, or 1 in 10, thought the same of the U.S. government.
  • 19%, almost 1 in 5, thought it was probably or definitely true that some at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exaggerated the degree of danger that the disease posed, as part of a plot to prevent Donald Trump’s election for a second term as President.
  • 21%, 1 in 5, believed that taking vitamin C could probably or definitely prevent infection.

There is no evidence that any of these beliefs are accurate.

Comparing information sources

The researchers surveyed respondents about their use of the following sources of information: Mainstream print, mainstream broadcast, conservative media, liberal media, online news aggregators, and social media.

The scientists then grouped the respondents’ answers in the following three categories:

  1. Mainstream media, such as network news and publications, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
  2. Conservative outlets, including Fox News and commentators such as Rush Limbaugh.
  3. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as web news aggregators, such as Google News and Yahoo News.

Consumers of mainstream media

Overall, the survey found that those who got their information from mainstream outlets were generally better informed.

  • Individuals who specifically reported using broadcast mainstream news understood that COVID-19 is more lethal than seasonal flu.
  • Those who reported using print mainstream news believed that regular hand washing and avoiding symptomatic people were good prevention strategies. Notably, the survey occurred before scientists had confirmed the ability of asymptomatic individuals to spread the virus.
  • People who used print media did not believe vitamin C was an effective defense against COVID-19, that CDC warnings were exaggerated or had anything to do with politics, or that China had created the virus as a bioweapon.

Consumers of conservative media

Followers of conservative media were more likely to hold inaccurate opinions about SARS-CoV-2 and to believe conspiracy theories.

  • They believed SARS-CoV-2 began as a Chinese bioweapon, and that they could take vitamin C to stay healthy.
  • They did not believe the disease posed a personal threat but thought others were using it as a political weapon against Donald Trump.

Consumers of social media and web news aggregators

Respondents in these groups together were similar, though divided:

  • Social media respondents believed that the threat of coronavirus was a politically motivated hoax from the CDC, that the Chinese deliberately created the virus, and that vitamin C was the secret cure.
  • Respondents who frequented web news aggregators were unconvinced that hand washing had value, or that steering clear of symptomatic individuals was worth doing.


The study’s authors suggest five steps that public health officials should consider taking to combat COVID-19 disinformation. These are:

  1. Recognizing that there remain some who discount the value of hand washing, and the dissemination of compelling evidence for the practice should continue.
  2. Developing standards for patrolling social media and catching and convincingly refuting misinformation before it has the chance to take root.
  3. Strategically supplying fact-checking personnel with information that debunks the most prevalent misconceptions first, to maximize the use of resources.
  4. Supplying conservative outlets with more accurate information through the placing of public service announcements, supplying persuasive interview subjects, and promoting websites where consumers can find accurate information.
  5. Encouraging online subscription news outlets to take down their paywalls around COVID-19 content to make accurate information accessible to the largest audience.