Why So Many People Believe Misinformation About COVID-19 (And How Communication Theories Can Help Us Change Their Minds)
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in endless conspiracy theories and misinformation. Social media is littered with armchair epidemiologists spouting theories with no basis in medicine, or science generally. Politicians are treating the virus as if it can be influenced by political whims rather than acknowledging it as the force of nature it is. How do we, as healthcare workers, health communicators, and people concerned for public health, combat the spread of harmful information?
Misinformation is rampant on social media. According to research out of Italy, 46,000 tweets a day linked to misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. Some popular theories have since gone quiet(er); initially right-wing politicians aided by Fox News insisted that the pandemic wasn’t real and that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu. Some conspiracy theories persist though, like the idea that the virus was a bioweapon or that obscure (often dangerous) medication regimens can cure COVID-19.
The reasons that people buy into conspiracy theories and misinformation are complicated. But what about people who are victims of this misleading information? Some people spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories because of their distrust of government or the establishment, or because they hold anti-science or anti-medical views that are unlikely to change. But plenty of people are consuming COVID-19 information indiscriminately; they aren’t pros at discerning which information is valid and which is misguided, malicious, or flatly untrue. They don’t know where the information they see on social media comes from or how to determine its truthfulness.
Additionally, health literacy can impact whether someone is taken in by misinformation. Health literacy is how well someone can access and interpret health information and how well they can use that information to make decisions about their health. For example, people who don’t have experience in science or medicine might not be familiar with critically reading an academic paper or evaluating a study’s validity. They likely don’t understand how medications work, or what goes into conducting a clinical trial. 36% of adults in the US probably have limited health literacy. Underserved populations are more likely to have low health literacy, while at the same time being the hardest hit by COVID-19. The same systemic factors that marginalize groups of people are putting them at greater risk during the pandemic.
The first step to addressing health literacy gaps that lead people to believe misinformation is to provide proper health guidance in ways that are easy for everyone to understand. Figuring out what information people are lacking that keeps them from interpreting whether the information is valid or not can be helpful. Someone might say, “I’m not social distancing because I read that a clinical trial is starting. We’ll have a vaccine in a couple of weeks.” In this case, that person doesn’t understand how a clinical trial operates, how long it will take, and that beneficial results aren’t guaranteed. Educating people on the basics of clinical trials, the risk versus benefit for medications, and how viruses replicate can give them better base knowledge to interpret the information they’re seeing.
Our collective knowledge of COVID-19 is changing rapidly. Some people who initially thought the pandemic was a hoax or didn’t believe that it was serious, might now be struggling to manage the new, contradicting information they’re receiving. People do not tolerate inconsistencies well! There are a few phenomena that directly contribute to people continuing to believe misinformation. Cognitive dissonance results when someone internalizes information that conflicts with previously held beliefs. The strength of someone’s previously held beliefs, whether the issue at hand is significant or trivial, and how strongly the broader community agrees with new or existing information all impact how strongly someone feels the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.
It’s important to remember that people don’t evaluate information solely on if the argument is good or not. Everyone brings existing feelings and beliefs into the equation when they’re deciding whether to trust or dismiss new health information. People who have experienced trauma or mistreatment from the healthcare system before the pandemic may be more hesitant to accept a new vaccine or information they hear from health professionals in general. Understanding why people may be resistant to valid health information related to COVID-19 is critical. Tailoring messages for these groups, altering the content, method, or deliverer of the information, can address some of the pre-existing ideas that make them hesitant to believe factual information about the virus.
People who initially bought into the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic was a hoax or wasn’t a major threat bet all their chips on that idea. That belief is now obviously incorrect, but people may still be hesitant to admit that they were wrong. This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy, where people stick with a decision out of fear of feeling a loss. People may have posted on social media telling their friends and family to go outside when they believed that reaction to the pandemic was overkill. Now, when they see information that shows how crucial social distancing is for flattening the infection curve, they may ignore it to avoid feeling like they wasted time or effort promoting what they erroneously believed. They may also try to stick with their initial belief to avoid feeling guilt or shame at promoting incorrect information that could be harmful to people they care about. Sunk costs are a powerful motivator, so getting people to abandon what they were once promoting isn’t an easy endeavor. Explaining to people that they have much more to gain from listening to new, better information than they have to lose from changing their stance could be influential. Giving people back the agency to positively influence the lives of those they care about could soften the blow of rejecting their previously held beliefs.
Additionally, people may reject accurate information and seek out information that confirms what they already believe, an example of confirmation bias. To avoid the discomfort of cognitive dissonance, people gravitate towards information that supports their previously held beliefs, regardless of whether or not the information is credible. If someone relies on Fox News for information about the pandemic, they’re unlikely to switch over to MSNBC to get a different take. Rather than accept new information that is contrary to what they’ve previously heard, people are more likely to run with information that is consistent with their views. Someone who didn’t believe the pandemic was any worse than the flu might hear that infection and death projections have gone down due to social distancing efforts. Rather than understanding that those numbers changed due to our collective efforts, they question why we bothered to put society in lockdown in the first place. While it’s unlikely to change someone’s mind when it’s firmly made up and confirmation bias is strongly in play, providing valid, scientific information about COVID-19 and doing as much as possible to distribute it across varied channels could help.
We have an understanding of what misinformation is out there, how health literacy impacts people’s perception of COVID-19, the cognitive factors that can keep people stuck in their false beliefs, and how we can start to address each of these factors in COVID-19 health messaging. Where does that leave us? Adapting strategies to put out the best and most accurate information possible, in a way that most people can easily understand, is helpful. Knowing why so many people are holding on to misinformation about the pandemic is useful too. Ultimately, health communication can only go so far. Political leaders need to enact policies that go beyond addressing the pandemic and help correct disparities in communities with exceptionally low health literacy. Bad actors, like news organizations that knowingly distribute dangerous conspiracy theories, shouldn’t be treated as though they are promoting news and facts rather than political agendas. In a pandemic, especially, giving equal air time to “both sides” is beyond harmful. Lastly, we can talk to our family, friends, and others close to us, hear what information they’re ingesting, and refute it using personal narratives. When statistics and data aren’t getting through, personal narratives might do the trick. It’s hard to disprove something that someone else has experienced first-hand, and stories can get through to a family member who might otherwise shut down information that goes against their beliefs.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a stressful event, something none of us have ever experienced. It’s not easy to evaluate how our message is coming across when we’re busy worrying about the lives of ourselves and our loved ones. But taking an intensive approach to managing misinformation can go a long way toward reducing the number of lives lost.