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COVID-19 research: Navigating the coronavirus 'infodemic'

Reuters Institute researchers have analysed how well-informed people are about COVID-19 in six countries, discovering that almost a quarter of their respondents incorrectly believed that coronavirus was made in a laboratory. 

In a new factsheet from the Reuters Institute of the Study of Journalism (RISJ) researchers have analysed survey data collected in late March and early April 2020 to document and understand how people in six countries (Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the UK, and the US) accessed news and trusted sources for COVID-19 information. The authors, Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Dr Richard Fletcher, Nic Newman, and Dr. J. Scott Brennen, also assessed respondents' knowledge of and responses to the coronavirus crisis.

Key findings:

  • News use is up across all six countries, and most people in most countries are using either social media, search engines, video sites, and messaging applications (or combinations of these) to get news and information about coronavirus.
  • In all six countries, people with low levels of formal education are much less likely to say that they rely on news organisations for news and information about coronavirus, and more likely to rely on social media and messaging applications. In Argentina, South Korea, Spain, and the US, young people are much more likely to rely on social media, and in Germany, the UK, and the US, to rely on messaging applications groups.
  • In every country covered, very high numbers of people across age groups, levels of education, and political views rate scientists, doctors, and other health experts as trustworthy sources of information about coronavirus. Three-quarters of respondents trust national or international public health organisations, a majority of respondents rate news organisations relatively trustworthy, and in every country apart from Spain and the United States a majority rates their national government trustworthy as well.
  • While levels of trust in scientists and experts are consistently high, and levels of trust in ordinary people are consistently more limited, there are significant political differences in trust in news organisations and in the government, especially in the United States, where people on the left of the political spectrum trust news organisations much more than they trust the government, and people on the right trust the government much more than they trust news organisations.
  • When asked how trustworthy they find news and information about coronavirus from different platforms, most respondents rate platforms less trustworthy than experts, health authorities, and news organisations. Results vary significantly across different types of platforms – averaged across the six countries, the 'trust gap' between information from news organisations and information from social media is 33 percentage points, between news and video sites 30 percentage points, and between news and messaging applications 35 percentage points. The gap is 14 percentage points on average between news and search engines.
  • Asked how much false or misleading information about coronavirus (COVID-19), if any, people think they have seen from different sources and platforms, four overall findings stand out.
    • First, for every source and every platform in every country covered, it is a minority who say they have come across a lot or a great deal of false or misleading information around coronavirus.
    • Second, among sources, 'bottom-up' false or misleading misinformation spread by ordinary people whom respondents do not know personally is most widely identified (though in South Korea, Spain, and the US respondents say individual politicians generate large volumes of 'top-down' misinformation). On average about a third say they have seen a lot or a great deal of false or misleading bottom-up misinformation in the last week.
    • Third, among platforms, concern is focused on social media and messaging applications, where on average about a third of respondents say they have seen a lot or a great deal of false or misleading information in the last week.
    • Fourth, while concern about false or misleading information about coronavirus from news organisations and national government is less widespread than concerns over ordinary people, social media, messaging applications, and in some countries individual politicians, a significant majority are still worried – about a quarter on average for both news and government.
  • A majority of respondents in every country say that the news media have helped them understand the crisis and explain what they can do. However, about one in three also say they feel the news media have exaggerated the pandemic.
  • In terms of how well people do when asked a series of factual questions about coronavirus, most people do relatively well, with a clear majority answering more than half the questions correctly (more than three-quarters in every country apart from South Korea (58%) and the US (65%)). Regression analysis shows that using news organisations as a source of information is associated with a statistically significant increase in coronavirus knowledge in every country except Argentina and Spain. No source of, or platform for, information in our dataset is consistently and significantly associated with lower coronavirus knowledge.
  • For most individual questions, the number of correct answers is associated with level of education, as respondents with low levels of formal education give more incorrect responses to most questions, and for some questions, in particular on issues that high-profile politicians and other prominent public figures have opined on, political orientation plays a large role. Almost a quarter of our respondents incorrectly believe coronavirus was made in a laboratory.

With the arrival and spread of COVID–19, 'we're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic', WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said 15 February.

These key findings were taken from the Reuters Institute factsheet: ‘Navigating the ‘infodemic’: how people in six countries access and rate news and information about coronavirus’

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is part of the Department of Politics and International Relations.

Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Professor of Political Communication; Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of JournalismProfessor Philip Howard is Statutory Professor of Internet Studies at the Oxford Internet Institute and Balliol CollegeDr Richard Fletcher is Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of JournalismDr Scott Brennen is Postdoctoral Research Fellow