“People believed strongly that they knew the facts about the illness, but it turns out that, in many cases, their ‘facts’ were wrong.”
With President Trump in the cockpit, it’s more or less always a huge embarrassment to be American. Nevertheless, it’s seems the global COVID-19 crisis has served as magnifying glass on the stupid among us, from the White House to your uncle’s condo.
Are there idiots in other countries? You bet, tens of millions of them. But from where I’m sitting—inside, far away from other people, like I’m supposed to be—I mostly see and hear about the meatheads in this country, who keep me busy enough that I don’t have to worry too much about soccer hoodlums and all their other unsavory analogs elsewhere.
This is the part of the column where I am supposed to cherry pick any number of stories that show just how ignorant people among us are. From religious services that are still going on, to people who continue to play contact sports in public parks, there is sadly no end to the examples. But I’m going to skip right past that, since I came across this new study by the Reboot Foundation, a Paris-based outfit that “funds efforts to better integrate critical thinking into our daily lives.”
Titled “Going Viral: How Social Media Is Making the Spread of the Coronavirus Worse,” the research confirms my worst fears about—let’s face it—people who consume conservative news in any shape, form, or fascist, as well as other cocksure imbeciles of all varieties. That’s me talking, of course; Reboot’s work isn’t political. Rather, they gave surveys to a “geographically diverse” sample group of nearly 1,000, “with respondents located in 49 U.S. states,” and “data collected on 3-17-2020 and 3-18-2020.”
“First,” the summary explains, researchers “conducted a survey of the public on its knowledge of COVID-19 as well as its social media use. Second, the foundation scoured social media, tracking individual posts related to the virus.” Which led them to three main findings …
The first one is a doozy—“Almost a third of the public believes in COVID-19 myths.” The paper continues: “According to our representative survey of more than 1,000 people of various ages across the country, 29 percent, or almost a third, were misinformed on at least one aspect of the virus — and, in many cases, more.”
In the participant survey, “26 percent of respondents believed that COVID-19 will likely die off in the spring, and another 10 percent thought regularly rinsing their nose with saline will help prevent the virus. Another 12 percent believed that COVID-19 was created by people.” Furthermore, “Many members of the public also did not believe that the disease would have a big impact on them or their friends and family, and roughly 20 percent believed that the coronavirus was not a serious issue, while only 18 percent thought that it was ‘extremely serious.’”
And they’re not just dumb—they’re extremely confident. The Reboot study notes: “Such myths existed even though people argued that they knew a lot about the illness, and there was a large metacognitive gap between what people thought they knew and what they actually knew. For instance, more than 55 percent of respondents claimed that they were ‘very informed’ or ‘extremely informed’ about COVID-19. Another 42 percent said that they were ‘somewhat informed.’ Only about 3 percent felt “not very informed” or “not at all informed.” In other words, people believed strongly that they knew the facts about the illness, but it turns out that, in many cases, their ‘facts’ were wrong.”
Second, they found that “social media use appears to drive misinformation around COVID-19.” More specifically, “the more time people spend on social media, the more they believe in COVID-19 myths. This pattern was clear in the survey. An increase in social media use correlated with an increase in people being misinformed about the virus.”
The researchers say “it’s not clear that social media use caused this change to occur.” Still, “the analysis showed that beliefs in myths about the virus were linked with the participants’ primary reliance on news sources. For example, people who relied on the CDC website for COVID-19 information answered more than 80 percent of the questions correctly. In contrast, heavy social media users only got 75 percent of the questions right.”
It’s not a pretty picture: “heavy social media users were far more likely to be misinformed over key facts. For instance, heavy social media users were significantly more likely to believe the virus was created by humans, and more likely to believe that items from China could contain the virus.”
And somehow, it gets worse. Drumroll please … Reboot’s third standout finding: “Despite the misinformation on social media on COVID-19, virus-related posts are skyrocketing. While social media appears to be a weak source of information on COVID-19, that has not stopped people from posting on the pandemic, and COVID-19 posts have been booming.”
Needless to say, the conclusion’s pretty ugly.
“This study shows that there remains a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 circulating online. The research also shows clearly that social media is playing a role, promoting a lot of COVID-19 myths as well as a lackadaisical attitude toward the pandemic in general.
“The end result is dangerous for individuals and society, and far more needs to be done to give the public health robust information about the virus and ways to prevent it.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.