Research co-authored by Mozilla Fellow Oleg Zhilin examines the consequence of COVID-related misinformation online

A second pandemic of sorts is occurring in parallel to COVID-19 — a crisis the UN has dubbed an “infodemic.” Misinformation about the virus — from its origins to its cures — has spread rapidly across online platforms.

Now, a new research essay co-authored by Mozilla Fellow Oleg Zhilin explores this topic in depth. Zhilin and others unpack questions like: How prevalent is misinformation surrounding COVID-19 on Twitter, and how does this compare to Canadian news media? Does the type of media one is exposed to influence social distancing behaviours and beliefs about COVID-19? And, Is there a link between COVID-19 misinformation and perceptions of the pandemic’s severity and compliance with social distancing recommendations?

The research essay is published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review and titled “The causes and consequences of COVID-19 misperceptions: Understanding the role of news and social media.” It is co-authored by Aengus Bridgman, Taylor Owen, Derek Ruths, and Lisa Teichmann of McGill University, and Eric Merkley and Peter John Loewen of University of Toronto.

Says Zhilin: “Misinformation can affect the transmission pattern of a pandemic, which is concerning for social media platforms that are increasingly being relied upon for news consumption. It is difficult to estimate the level of individuals' exposure to false or misleading claims because platforms try to detect and remove such content before it captures the attention of their users. Even if we accept that an individual has consumed misinformation through social media or traditional news, we still need to know whether they believe it and will change their behavior in response. This essay is one step by our research team towards the clarification of these dynamics with respect to COVID-19 in a Canadian context.”

Misinformation can affect the transmission pattern of a pandemic.

Oleg Zhilin

Among the research’s key findings:

Misinformation about COVID-19 is circulated more on Twitter as compared to traditional media. There are large differences between the levels of misinformation on Twitter and news media. Misinformation is comparatively more common on Twitter across the four research categories used, while debunking was relatively more common in traditional news. Meanwhile, advice on hygiene and social distancing appeared much more frequently in news media.

There is a strong association between social media exposure and misperceptions about COVID-19. The inverse is true for exposure to traditional news. Moving from no social media exposure to its maximum can increase one’s misperceptions of COVID-19. Meanwhile, traditional news exposure is associated with correct perceptions regarding COVID-19.

Misperceptions about the pandemic are associated with lower levels of risk perceptions and social distancing compliance. Social media exposure increases misperceptions, which in turn reduces social distancing compliance. Misperceptions is also weakly associated with lower COVID-19 risk perceptions.

Read the full research essay.