Americans are super-spreaders of misinformation about COVID-19, study finds


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Misinformation about COVID-19 is spreading from the United States to Canada, undermining efforts to mitigate the pandemic. A study led by McGill University shows that Canadians who use social media are more likely to consume this misinformation, adopt false beliefs about COVID-19, and subsequently spread them.

Many Canadians believe conspiracy theories, shoddy medical advice, and information trivialize the virus, although the country’s media and political leaders have generally focused on providing reliable scientific information. So how is misinformation spreading so quickly?

“Many Canadians are struggling to understand COVID-19 denial and anti-vaccination attitudes among their loved ones,” says lead author Aengus Bridgman, Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at McGill University under the supervision of Dietlind Stolle. According to the study, published in Frontiers in political scienceThese attitudes are in part the result of the massive Canadian consumption of information from the United States.

The researchers analyzed the behaviors of the 200,000 most active Canadian Twitter users and conducted surveys on Canadians’ news consumption habits and beliefs about COVID-19. They found that social media users are relatively more exposed to US information than national information sources, and that exposure to US media was associated with misperceptions about COVID-19.

They also found that most of the misinformation circulating on Twitter shared by Canadians was retweeted by US sources. Canadians who followed more American users were more likely to post misinformation.

Canada is not immune to the American infodemic

While there has been a Canadian partisan consensus on fighting COVID-19, the political climate in the United States is very different. South of the border there is intense polarization about the severity of the pandemic, and misinformation is reinforced by the US media and political figures alike.

Information circulating in the United States also profoundly impacts Canadians, for better or for worse. This is especially true in social media spaces, where Canadians are among the most common users: one in two is on Instagram, five out of six are on Facebook, and two out of five are on Twitter. In addition, Canadians pay special attention to the American media. “On average, they follow three times as many Americans as Canadians on Twitter, and are retweeted eight times more often,” says co-author Taylor Owen, associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

According to the researchers, this influence produces a worrying vulnerability for Canada during the pandemic. “It is difficult for Canadian journalists, scientists and public health experts to be heard by the average Canadian, given all the noise generated by American sources,” says Bridgman. “Countries with journalists and political leaders who do not indulge in conspiracy theories or profess unscientific views are simply not immune to dangerous infodemics.”

Find a cure

Although many Canadians choose to consume news from the US, social media platforms likely play a key role in deepening this interest, the researchers say.

Not only do their algorithms saturate information flows with American news, they also spread fake news much faster than factual news. By privileging content that elicits emotional responses from users, algorithms help spread misinformation like wildfire.

Governments wishing to limit the spread of infodemics should consider the ways that social media platforms bring information from outside the country to the top of the news. “This infodemic has the ability to change important attitudes and behaviors that influence COVID-19 transmission patterns. Ultimately, it can change the scale and lethality of a pandemic,” says Owen.


COVID-19: Social Media Users More Likely to Create False Information


More information:
Aengus Bridgman et al, Infodemic Pathways: Evaluating the Role That Traditional and Social Media Play in Cross-National Information Transfer, Frontiers in political science (2021). DOI: 10.3389 / fpos.2021.648646

Provided by McGill University

Citation: Americans Are Super Spreading Misinformation About COVID-19: Study (2021, April 6) Retrieved April 7, 2021, from https://phys.org/news/2021-04-americans-super-spreaders-covid -misinformation.html

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