A new Irish study has found that when people become overloaded with social media content about COVID-19, their ability to critically assess how valid that content is becomes impaired.
The study was carried out by researchers at NUI Galway, who set out to examine the triggers that lead people to share misinformation about the virus via social media.
Misinformation is defined as "false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive".
According to the researchers, misinformation poses a major threat to public health during the COVID-19 pandemic and its rapid spread is amplified by social media.
This could result in people failing to adhere to recommended public health measures or engaging in non-recommended behaviours.
As an example, the researchers pointed to an article which claimed that Sweden, where lockdown measures were not implemented, is experiencing low death rates. This article had been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook.
However, the reality is that Sweden has a death toll of over 4,000, which is a much higher figure than the combined toll of its Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark and Norway. These have implemented stricter lockdown measures and have recorded fewer than 1,000 deaths between them.
The NUI Galway study found that while social media can help people stay informed about COVID-19, when people become overloaded with content, their ability to critically assess the validity of the information is impaired.
However, their trust in the unverified information remains high and so they are more likely to share the content within their social network.
This exacerbates the issue of COVID-19 misinformation.
According to the study's co-author, Dr Eoin Whelan, a senior lecturer in business information systems at NUI Galway, while misinformation is not a new problem, "the quantity and dissemination of misinformation has grown exponentially due to the ubiquity of social media".
"We have already seen the impact misinformation spreading through social media can have in political elections. Now, we are witnessing its harmful effects on public health in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Our study suggests when people become overloaded with social media content, they are not only more likely to believe unverified COVID-19 information, but will further contribute to the problem by spreading the misinformation onto others," he explained.
The study also looked at the growing problem of ‘cyberchondria', which is when people become increasingly concerned about their health based on medical information they have looked up on the internet.
The study found that when people attribute a higher severity and susceptibility to COVID-19, they tend to spend more time looking up symptoms online, which then amplifies their stress and anxiety about the virus.
Meanwhile, the researchers also pointed out that social media companies have a major role to play in curbing COVID-19 misinformation, and can use these findings to help curtail the problem.
"WhatsApp has already introduced restrictions on the forwarding of messages containing COVID-19-related information, while Google directs people searching for COVID-19 related information to trusted websites.
"Our findings suggest that if social media companies also restrict the amount of COVID-19 specific information people are exposed to, this would be effective in curbing the misinformation and cyberchondria problems identified in our study," Dr Whelan said.
He added that health organisations can also use these findings to educate social media users "to consume content in a sustainable manner and thus avoid these problems".
The study involved a collaboration with the University of Turku in Finland and involved almost 300 people who use social media on a daily basis. Its findings are published in the European Journal of Information Systems.
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