Coronavirus misinformation reaching one in two adults

Written by Ailean Beaton on 14 April 2020 in News
News

Study from Ofcom sheds light on spread of falsehoods

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Almost half of adults online have come across false or misleading information about coronavirus in the last week, a study has found.

A report by Ofcom says that 40% of people are finding it hard to know what is true or false about the virus, particularly younger people.

Myths on avoiding the virus were the most common form of misinformation, with 35 per cent of online adults saying they had seen the untrue claim that drinking more water can flush out the infection.

Nearly a quarter also said they had seen inaccurate claims that gargling saltwater or avoiding cold food and drink might also stop a person catching COVID-19. Among those who have been exposed to falsehoods, the report says, two-thirds are seeing it every day.

The findings are from the first of a series of weekly reports from Ofcom on how people are receiving and acting on information about coronavirus.


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Most people said that they ignored false claims about the virus, while 15% look up fact-checks and 13% ask their friends and family to determine what is true.

The study also asked people how they get news and information about coronavirus, and also whether they were following the public health guidance from the government. While the majority of people said they were taking the advice seriously, younger people were found to be following guidance on handwashing less closely.

Almost all online adults said they were getting news and information about coronavirus at least once a day, with nearly a quarter doing so 20 or more times a day.

The BBC was found to be the most trusted source of information with 82% turning to BBC radio, TV and online services for news.

The World Health Organization (WHO), NHS and the UK Government were referenced by 52% of people while 43% read newspapers. Almost half took news from social media, although only 15% used closed messaging groups like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger to get news.

The report also asked people about trust, finding that public officials were the most trusted sources of news on the topic.

Of those that use them, 95% of people trusted information from the NHS and 94% from the WHO. Nearly 90% said they trusted the UK government’s information on coronavirus.

Of news sources, the BBC and Channel 4 are the most trusted, by 83% of respondents.

Social media was the least trusted source of news about the pandemic, trusted only by 21% of people.

Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s group director for strategy and research, said: “People are turning to public authorities and traditional broadcasters for trusted information about Covid-19, and the vast majority say they’re closely following official advice. With so much false information circulating online, it’s never been more important that people can cut through the confusion and find accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and advice.”

Catherine Stihler, chief executive of the Open Knowledge Foundation, said: “The spread of fake news and disinformation about the coronavirus crisis is deeply concerning. Tech giants have a responsibility to increase transparency and work closely with fact-checkers to prevent the spread of disinformation, and governments across the world should use their influence to ensure this happens.

“The best way to tackle disinformation is to make information open, allowing journalists and researchers to provide facts to the public. Open data is a force for good in these troubled times – not least because this will lead to the restoration of confidence in experts.”

 

About the author

Ailean Beaton is a journalist at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where this article first appeared. He tweets as @AileanBeaton.

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