New research has found that the amount of misinformation related to COVID-19 is disproportionately higher than content produced by fact-checkers on Twitter. COVID misinformation also maintains attention and engagement for longer online than fact-based content.
The research, led by Open University academics, aimed to examine misinformation about COVID-19 online as a means of improving the effectiveness of the response to the pandemic.
Over 350,000 tweets that shared misinforming or fact-checking content related to COVID-19 between December 2019 to January 2021 were studied.
It was found that fact-checking may not be as successful as expected in reducing misinformation spread on Twitter. The amount of misinformation on COVID-19 was shared on Twitter around 3.5 times more than content trying to correct misinformation.
This highlighted the importance of fact-checkers making their content attractive and eye-catching to social media users – thereby more shareable and likely to gain traction on platforms.
Misinformation is also more often re-published or re-shared after some time than fact-checking. This is particularly observable in relation to conspiracy theories and COVID origins or causes as these are often much harder to debunk based on known facts (i.e. conspiracy theories are ‘beyond’ factual content and COVID causes still remain unclear).
Dr Grégoire Burel, the data science researcher behind this study, called for fact-checkers to combat this:
“Fact-checkers should, accordingly, be more ready to republish and boost the spread of fact-checking content. Social media platforms also could take a bigger responsibility and identify misinformation faster.”
Dr Tracie Farrell, one of the key researchers in the project, commented on the impact that being exposed to correct information can have on people’s likelihood to follow Government guidelines or advice:
“While these results may seem disheartening, we know from extensive previous research that correcting misinformation with facts about COVID-19 may help to reduce the exposure they get on social media platforms. Access to correct information on COVID-19 makes people better at following government guidelines on social distancing, recommendations on hygiene, and it also improves vaccine acceptance. Understanding how we can correct misinformation online can help us save lives.”
The study is led by Prof Harith Alani, the Deputy Director of the Knowledge Media Institute, and it is part of the HERoS-project (Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems) led by Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki. The overall objective of HERoS is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Read the full paper here.