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#Enigma2022: Pandemic Misinformation Reveals Challenges for Online Health Information

The fact that misinformation is rampant online is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps less understood is the intersection between how often an individual sees a piece of misinformation and how likely they are to believe it.

In a session at the Enigma 2022 conference on February 1, Patrick Gage Kelley, trust and safety researcher at Google, outlined the results of a two-year study conducted by Google about online misinformation. The study was conducted throughout 2020 and 2021 and involved a series of regular surveys that included feedback from over 50,000 people from 16 countries worldwide.

Kelley explained that the researchers had two basic lines of questioning. The first focused on exposure. The researchers asked about a certain statement of information and whether the survey participant heard the information once, many times or not at all. The second line of questioning focussed on beliefs. Respondents could tell the researchers if they strongly believe a specific statement, if they kind of believe it or if they strongly don’t believe it.

Pandemic Conspiracy Misinformation and Beliefs

The Google-led research asked about a series of pandemic-specific conspiracies and found a shocking level of awareness and belief in them.

“We asked people if Bill Gates, George Soros or some other powerful person is behind COVID-19, and 16% globally had that belief,” Kelley said. “We asked people if injecting cleaning products or UV light into people is an effective treatment for COVID-19 – that had an 11% belief.”

Kelley noted that the research wasn’t conducted as just a single point-in-time study but conducted with researchers doing the survey and asking similar questions every few months.

“One of the effects that we find over and over again is that although the narratives move quickly, once these fringe beliefs take hold, they’re difficult to change,” he said.

The researchers also tested views about multiple conspiracies related to the COVID-19 vaccinations, including the falsehood that the COVID-19 vaccine has microchips and is used to track those who get vaccinated secretly. In 2020, 11% of global respondents believed that falsehood to be true, dropping to 10% in 2021.

Reasons for Optimism

While there is much to worry about in terms of online misinformation, there is also some cause for optimism, according to Kelley.

Kelley said that overall, there was a higher level of belief in several positive public health statements that the researchers tested than in the more clear-cut misinformation statements tested.

One such statement was that wearing a face-covering in public is an effective way for slowing the spread of COVID-19. 73% of people globally believed that statement in 2020. Another tested statement was that social distancing, by staying at least six feet from people not in your household, effectively slows the spread of COVID-19, which was believed by 70% of respondents globally. In 2021 however, the results dropped by 5% for face masks and 7% for social distancing.

“While this keeps both above the 60% belief range, it shows how much effort is required to maintain these extremely high levels of belief,” Kelley said. “We take this to show how important continued unified proactive health messaging is.”

Kelley concluded his presentation by noting that Google overall continues to see substantial populations in every country believing in various misinformation and low-quality information statements after widespread exposure to that information.

“People are going to believe a wide range of things and what we need to make sure is that we continue to get access to good information,” Kelley said. “There’s going to be misinformation, and one of the things we can do is measure and understand that so that we can best respond.”

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