Cambridge University study also suggests older people less likely to believe coronavirus misinformation
People with poor numerical literacy are more likely to believe Covid-19 misinformation, according to a survey conducted in five countries.
Researchers at Cambridge University said the findings suggested improving people’s analytical skills could help turn the tide against an epidemic of “fake news” surrounding the health crisis.
Five national surveys – reflecting national quotas for age and gender – were conducted this year to evaluate susceptibility to coronavirus-related misinformation and its influence on key health-related behaviours.
The study found the most consistent predictor of decreased susceptibility to misinformation about Covid-19 was numerical literacy – the ability to digest and apply quantitative information broadly.
A man in a mask passes 5G conspiracy graffiti in London in April 2020. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA
People in Ireland, Spain, Mexico, the US and the UK took part in the study. Their numerical literacy levels were calculated on the basis of three different numeracy tests.
Participants were presented with nine statements about Covid-19, some false (for example, 5G networks may be making us more susceptible to the coronavirus) and some true (for instance, people with diabetes are at higher risk of complications from coronavirus).
Participants were also asked about their risk perception of Covid-19, what extent they complied with public health guidance and their likelihood of getting vaccinated if a vaccine were to become available.
Overall, higher susceptibility to fake news was associated with lower self-reported compliance with public health guidance for Covid-19, as well as people’s willingness to get vaccinated against the virus and recommend the vaccine to vulnerable family and friends.
Some scientists think that susceptibility to misinformation is related to political views, while others think it is linked to reasoning abilities, study author Dr Sander van der Linden explained.
“My take is that both are relevant. And I was surprised to see numeracy playing such a strong role here … it was one of the single most important predictors,” he said. “I like that finding in a sense because it gives me hope that there’s a solution out there.”
Another distinct factor linked to belief in Covid-19 “fake news” was age, the researchers found. Being older was associated with lower susceptibility to misinformation everywhere (except Mexico) – inconsistent with prior research that typically found the opposite pattern, at least in the context of elections.
“It could be that older people are less susceptible [to misinformation] but they’re still sharing it more,” Linden said, adding that they may also be less inclined to endorse Covid-19 misinformation because there is an incentive to be accurate as the elderly are the biggest casualties of the disease.
The research, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, also found that people who were more receptive to misinformation viewed themselves as minorities and appeared resistant to voices in authority such as scientists and politicians.
Political conservatism was also linked to a slightly higher susceptibility to misinformation, the researchers found, but surprisingly, this link was not as strong in the US and UK as it was elsewhere.
Dr Emma O’Dwyer, a senior lecturer at Kingston University who was not involved in the study, wondered why the researchers had chosen these five countries to survey.
“There are differences across the countries,” she said. “This paper doesn’t … provide an account at the country level for why these relationships are different.”
The paper also does not give as much attention to how or why misinformation takes root in the first place, said Dominic Abrams, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, who was not involved in the research.
“Beyond individuals’ susceptibility there is the question of how and why some misleading sources can achieve an air of legitimacy.”
(Source: The Guardian)