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Americans Are Super Spreaders When It Comes To COVID-19 Misinformation

by : Emily Brown on : 09 Apr 2021 18:34
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A new study has described Americans as ‘super-spreaders of COVID-19 misinformation’ as residents use social media to churn out false claims. 

Led by McGill University in Montreal, Canada, the study came about as researchers aimed to determine how misinformation spread so rapidly in a country where news outlets and political leaders tended to focus on providing reliable, scientific information to residents.

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Many Canadians have fallen victim to inaccurate information, believing conspiracy theories, questionable medical advice and information downplaying the seriousness of the virus.

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Lead author Aengus Bridgman, a PhD Candidate in Political Science at McGill University under the supervision of Dietlind Stolle, explained that a lot of residents in the country are ‘struggling to understand COVID-19 denialism and anti-vaccination attitudes among their loved ones’.

In an effort to find out where this false information was coming from, researchers analysed the behaviours of the 200,000 most active Canadian Twitter users and conducted surveys on news consumption habits and the beliefs about coronavirus held by Canadians.

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The findings, published in Frontiers in Political Science, revealed that those who use social media are relatively more exposed to US-based information than reports emerging from Canada, and that exposure to US news outlets was associated with misconceptions about coronavirus.

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After consuming the misinformation, Canadians who use social media are more likely to then embrace the false beliefs and pass them on to those who will listen.

Bridgman commented, ‘It’s hard for Canadian journalists, scientists and public health experts to be heard by the average Canadian, given all the noise generated by American sources. Countries with journalists and political leaders that don’t indulge conspiracy theories or profess anti-science views are simply not immune to dangerous infodemics.’

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Canadians who followed more American users were also more likely to post misinformation, and when it comes to misinformation shared by Canadians the researchers found that most of the incorrect content was retweeted from US sources.

Part of the reason Canadians appear to be so susceptible to consuming misinformation is due to their high presence on social media. According to a press release from McGill University, one out of two residents are on Instagram, five out of six are on Facebook, and two out of five are on Twitter.

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Study co-author Taylor Owen, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, said that Canadians on average follow three times as many Americans as Canadians on Twitter, and retweet them eight times more often.

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Though social media users may be able to try and limit their consumption of misinformation by being cautious of who they follow, the researchers note that social media platforms saturate information streams with American news and propagate content that draws emotional responses from users, in turn meaning false news is spread much quicker than fact.

Owen said, ‘This infodemic has the capacity to change important attitudes and behaviours that influence transmission patterns of COVID-19. Ultimately, it can change the scale and lethality of a pandemic.’

For governments wanting to limit the spread of so-called infodemics, the researchers recommended taking into account the ways in which social media platforms push information from other countries to the top of news feeds.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: News, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Fake News, Misinformation, Now

Credits

McGill University and 1 other
  1. McGill University

    Americans are super-spreaders of COVID-19 misinformation

  2. Frontiers in Political Science

    Infodemic Pathways: Evaluating the Role That Traditional and Social Media Play in Cross-National Information Transfer