How to Shorten the Link Between Social Media Use and Policy Skepticism

People who use the most news on social media are more likely to doubt COVID-19 vaccines and are more skeptical about vaccination, according to our recently published study. But we found that social media users with higher levels of reading the news have more confidence in the images of COVID-19. Another study found that over-reliance on social media exposes people to false information related to COVID-19, especially on the effectiveness of vaccines.

In the 2020 pandemic, we measured how skeptical social media users were about the development of a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 and how likely they would be to get a shot if one were available.

We also tested participants’ news knowledge by asking nine questions that tested how much they knew about how journalism works – for example, identifying which outlets reported on their own instead of aggregating stories, and which publications were for-profit. You can take quizzes to test your media literacy.

In our research, participants with low levels of reading and news knowledge, which meant answering correctly only three out of nine questions on average, may have been more reluctant to vaccinate than those with four to six correct answers) or high (seven or more correct. answers) levels of news knowledge.

We observe that misinformation and misinformation about the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines spread through social media is turning into vaccine skepticism, especially among people who are less knowledgeable about distinguishing fake news from real news. Our conclusion is consistent with the findings of other researchers that improving media literacy is an effective intervention against misinformation.

Why is it important

During this pandemic, people are relying heavily on social media for entertainment, stress relief and news related to the coronavirus.

For example, a 2021 report by the Pew Research Center found nearly half of Americans rely on social media for news about COVID-19. As a result, social media users were exposed to misinformation about the coronavirus at the same time as the skepticism of scientists and public health agencies related to COVID-19 was growing. Incorrect health information on social media can also lead people to develop false beliefs about public health interventions such as vaccines.

Despite the availability of vaccines in the United States, only 49% of people had completed the first round of COVID-19 and received a booster shot as of Oct. 19, 2022. A March 2022 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that unvaccinated people are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated people.

Vaccination helps reduce the harmful effects of COVID-19. Anything that destroys confidence in a shot is important to public health.

Another study being conducted

One important line of work is investigating who may be at risk for misinformation about COVID-19. For example, one 2020 study found that heavy social media users who are also politically conservative are more vulnerable to misinformation related to COVID-19 than those who are not.

Researchers are also exploring ways to reduce misconceptions about COVID-19. In one case, the World Health Organization designed and distributed a shared infographic dispelling various coronavirus myths. Research has shown exposure to infographics reduces belief in a specific COVID-19 target myth. The result was the same whether the photo was shared by the World Health Organization or an anonymous Facebook user.

How we do our work

Our study relies on online survey data collected in the US at two different times – once in late September 2020 and then four weeks later, just before the US presidential election. Our initial sample of 2,000 participants was selected to closely match the US population in terms of age, gender distribution and political affiliation. Participants were given high, medium or low ratings for both reluctance to vaccinate against COVID-19 and media literacy based on our questionnaire.

Follow-up sampled 673 participants. Examining our participants after a month allowed us to confirm that their beliefs were consistent more than once.

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