Coronavirus ‘Infodemic’ under the Microscope

28 Apr 2020

A new Reuters Institute report reveals how citizens of six diverse countries accessed, consumed and judged media as the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, and how well-informed they were by their preferred sources.

STI Experts

Data collected during the early phase of the pandemia (late March to early April) from Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the UK and the US revealed that news consumption rose across the board.  Most people used new technologies to actively search for news on the virus. The less-educated relied more heavily on social media for their information, while higher education levels were associated with greater attention to news organizations. Those and other demographic profiles of preferred news sources were more or less the same as prior to the crisis.  

Most people – even those who used platforms - expressed less confidence in the trustworthiness of social media than of authorities and established news outlets. A many as a third of respondents suspected they had been subjected to a lot of bogus information on messaging platforms. Some 25% were also concerned about the trustworthiness of information gleaned from government and news sources. Overall, some third of respondents thought all media were guilty of exaggeration.

Despite these worries, most people in every country felt that the media had helped them understand the situation. And they were right:  substantial majorities in every country knew most of the facts about coronavirus when questioned. Higher education was associated with more correct responses. Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen pointed out that those who had more and better information were the same group who tended to get it from reputable news agencies. Writing on the report in The Washington Post, Nielsen said, “People who rely on news organizations for information about the novel coronavirus simply know significantly more about the disease than those who do not.” Despite generally good results, more than 25% of the public believed the theory that a laboratory had created the virus – a theory that the WHO has declared unsupported by evidence.

In addition to news organizations and social media platforms, other information sources people had accessed were national government sites, national or global health organizations, health experts and scientists, politicians, and ordinary people - both acquaintances and strangers, though news outlets were the single most important source. And while only 16% of respondents identified social media platforms as their principal source of news, many of the other sources were often accessed through such platforms.

A previous Reuters Institute report that analyzed misinformation (false or misleading) about COVID-19 blamed 80% of false claims on “bottom-up” sources, though the 20% that originated top-down (from prominent public figures) created more buzz, being responsible for almost 70% of social media engagements. The report noted that most false news had been “reworked” or “spun” from facts rather than being entirely fabricated. It was further noted that most organizations had taken measures to address false claims, and that fact checking in the English language had multiplied by 900% in a three-month period. 

Read the entire report, “Navigating the ‘infodemic’: how people in six countries access and rate news and information about coronavirus” here.