COVID-19: Reading fake news changes people’s behaviour, study reveals


A study around COVID-19 misinformation says fake stories can change people’s behaviour which can have bigger effects on health.

The online study which was conducted by Ciara Greene, an associate professor of psychology at the University College, Dublin and Gillian Murphy was done in 2020 and was published in 2021. They had recruited 4,500 participants via an online call.

The participants were told that the study seek to “investigate reactions to a range of public health messages and news stories relating to the novel coronavirus outbreak,” Greene wrote in a report.

She said “It’s assumed that fake news has a negative effect on people’s behavior. For example, it has been claimed that fake news might affect people’s willingness to wear a mask, get a vaccine or comply with other public health guidelines. Yet, surprisingly, virtually no research has directly tested this assumption, so my colleagues and I took on the challenge of measuring what effect fake news actually has on people’s behaviour.”

Greene explained that each participant were exposed to six stories – four real, two fake – about the pandemic.

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The fake stories which were designed to look like the the stories in circulation were “drinking coffee might protect against the coronavirus; eating chilli peppers might reduce COVID-19 symptoms;  pharmaceutical companies were hiding harmful side-effects of a vaccine then in development; and that the forthcoming contact-tracing app to be released by Ireland’s public health service had been developed by people with ties to Cambridge Analytica.”

In the course of several months, the participants were asked to indicate how likely they were to act on the information.

Greene said they found that fake stories “seem to change people’s behaviour, but not dramatically so.”

She added that the secondary aim of the study was to look at the effects of general warnings about misinformation, such as those shared by governments and media organisations.

“We observed small but measurable effects on some behavioural intentions but not others—for example, participants who read a story about problems with a forthcoming contact-tracing app reported a 5% reduction in willingness to download the app. These data suggest that one-off fake news exposure may have behavioural consequences, though the effects are not large”,  states the abstract of the report.

“We also found no effects of providing a general warning about the dangers of online misinformation on response to the fake stories, regardless of the framing of the warning in positive or negative terms.

“This suggests that generic warnings about online misinformation, such as those used by governments and social media companies, are unlikely to be effective.

“We conclude with a call for more empirical research on the real-world consequences of fake news,” it stated.

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