According to a new study conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, people who get their information on Covid-19 from social media platforms are more likely to believe pandemic-related conspiracy theories and break lockdown rules.
The findings, based on three separate surveys, have been published in the leading journal Psychological Medicine.
As part of the study, researchers interviewed more than 2,000 UK residents aged between 16 and 75 last month. Their findings show that platforms such as YouTube or Facebook often contain conspiratorial content which is spreading confusion among users, leading to distrust of government and a disregard for lockdown guidelines.
Nearly one-third (30%) of respondents believe coronavirus was likely created in a lab, which marks an increase from 25% at the beginning of April.
Additionally, a similar percentage said they believe the death toll is being ‘deliberately exaggerated’ by authorities.
Around 7% of respondents said they believe there to be no hard evidence of Covid-19 even existing, while 13% believe that the pandemic is part of a coordinated global effort to introduced forced vaccinations.
The study found a ‘statistically significant’ link between social media use and a belief in conspiracy theories. For example, among those who use YouTube to get coronavirus information, around 60% stated they believe the virus is linked to 5G radiation.
Conspiracy theories relating to 5G have risen sharply since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. Across the UK, 5G towers have been attacked by those who believe the masts are somehow connected to the spread of the virus.
The issue prompted a response from social media firms, the UK Government and counter-terrorism authorities.
More than half (56%) of people who believe there is no hard evidence of Covid-19 existing regularly use Facebook as a key source of information and news. This is almost three times higher than the proportion of non-believers who do (20%).
Similarly, nearly half (45%) of respondents who believe Cobvid-19 deaths are being exaggerated said they get a lot of their information from Facebook.
Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, warned that there are clear links between belief in conspiracies and lower trust in government.
“Even the more extreme conspiracy theories around Covid-19 are thought to be true by a large section of the public – with one in five people saying they believe at least one from there being a link to 5G radiation, or that the pandemic is part of a global forced vaccination programme, or that there is no evidence the disease actually exists,” he said.
“And this is important, as there are clear links between belief in conspiracies and both lower trust in government and less compliance with the guidelines set to control the disease,” Duffy added.
People who have broken lockdown rules are more likely to get their information on the pandemic from social media, according to the survey. Around 58% of those who have gone outside with Covid-19 symptoms use YouTube as a primary source of information.
Dr Daniel Allington, senior lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London said that, sadly, these statistics come as no surprise.
“Our findings suggest that social media use is linked both to false beliefs about Covid-19 and a failure to follow the clear-cut rules of the lockdown. This is not surprising, given that so much of the information on social media is misleading or downright wrong,” Allington said.
As lockdown rules begin to relax nationwide, Allington warned that access to factual information on the pandemic will be “more important than ever”.
“It’s time for us to think about what action we can take to address this very real problem,” he insisted.
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Political beliefs also play a key role in Covid-related conspiracy beliefs, researchers said. More than one-third (39%) of Conservative voters think Covid-19 was created in a lab, compared with 23% of Labour voters.
This belief among Tory voters has also increased by 14 points since early April, the study notes.
Leave voters are also twice as likely as Remain voters to believe the virus was created in a lab, while Labour voters are more inclined to believe the ‘real’ Covid-19 death toll is being deliberately withheld or reduced by the government.
Among 16 to 24-year-olds, around 22% believe that 5G is linked to the spread of Covid-19, which represents the highest proportion of any age group. In comparison, 3% of those aged 45-54 believe in the 5G link, while only 2% of over 55s believe 5G has any link to the virus.