There are a lot of things we do not know about the new coronavirus that is the source of a global pandemic. How many people actually have it? Where are these people? How did they contract the virus? Who is more likely to suffer more severe symptoms? How many have actually died from it? What should you treat yourself if you think you have contracted it? Did the virus originate from a wet market or a from laboratory studying diseases and viruses like this one? And so on.
At a time where there is little information about a known threat to our lives and our livelihood, people are hungry for anything they can get. Hence, we were unsurprised to see a large number of respondents to our Wednesday poll say they are paying more attention to the news than before.
In this type of environment, misinformation and mistaken conjectures can thrive. Even sources ordinarily thought of as reputable have been caught reporting what eventually turned out to be misinformation. Nearly every major publication had an opinion piece or something downplaying the threat of this virus in January and February. At the more extreme ends, some people have even bought into outright lies such as the rumour that 5G technology somehow causes coronavirus.
During our Wednesday poll, we therefore asked respondents whether they, during this crisis, had seen something they would describe as “fake news.” An astonishing two-thirds of respondents said yes.
Unsurprisingly, those who consumed news more often said they were more likely to report having seen fake news. More interestingly, those who said their primary source of news was an online publication or news website were less likely to say they saw fake news.
When asked where exactly they had seen this misinformation, a strong majority cited Facebook.
The structure of social media lends it particularly to the spreading of false information: a Facebook user has a feed of ‘friends’ who range from lifelong best friends to people they may have met once at a party––hardly a solid baseline for trustworthiness. Publications, news sites and television channels, by contrast, have some set of standards that they strive to reach (even if they sometimes fall short) and hold themselves to account. Social media does not exactly have such standards.
For the moment, television serves as the primary source of news for the majority of the British population during the coronavirus crisis, though 25% of 25 to 34-year-olds cited Facebook or Twitter as their primary source of news.
When asked whether the Government should have the power to instruct social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to take down false and misleading information about the coronavirus, an extremely large majority (88%) of respondents said yes!
When all this is said and over, therefore, we may need to have a broader discussion as to how we, as human beings, take in information and weight it against what we find reasonable and trustworthy. For now, most people seem to think that the media and the press are doing a decent job during this crisis.
In time, that may change.
This poll is part of Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ ongoing research into public opinion on the coronavirus outbreak and government’s reaction to the crisis. Further results from our polling in the UK, USA, Italy, France, Spain and Germany is featured here.