What do we know about misinformation during the coronavirus outbreak?
by Dominik Stecuła
As coronavirus has spread around the world, so have concerns about misinformation about it on social media. But we cannot blame this crisis and our response to it on internet trolls or Macedonian teenagers. Misinformation on social media around public health is naturally a serious concern, but remarkably seems under control in the case of coronavirus. Instead, it’s the broader structure of our information ecosystem that has got us here: the misinformation disseminated by the most popular cable news channel in the country and select Republican voices, and the distrust among many Republicans for any non-explicitly-conservative news media outlet.
Since the 2016 election, and the growth of the prominence of so-called “fake news,” we have become understandably sensitized, as a society, to misinformation in our information ecosystem. In the case of coronavirus, the misinformation and viral deception takes the form of conspiracy theories, pseudoscientific miracle cures, various myths about the virus, and other health and policy concerns surrounding the spread of COVID-19. This misinformation can, understandably, do a lot of damage as people are trying to respond to the coronavirus crisis. The danger is potentially greater given that a growing number of Americans use social media to get their news.
But, unlike with political concerns, social media platforms have been surprisingly good in monitoring their platforms and serving up reliable information about coronavirus. What this public health crisis is exposing is the fundamental problem of our news media environment: despite the growth of social media, most Americans still get their news from more traditional sources and enjoy fairly diverse and balanced media diets. Nevertheless, a growing number of Americans distrusts the news that do not come from their preferred, ideological outlets. And at a moment of national crisis, such as this one, when you need citizens to occupy the “information commons,” to be on the same page, and to trust the experts to learn what to do to protect themselves and their communities, and to help get the situation under control, this lack of trust can create problems. These problems can be exacerbated if the coverage in the only trusted outlet on the political right is dangerously misleading and vastly different from the public health expert consensus.
You have probably heard about trust in the news declining for decades now, from a high of 72% in 1978 to a low of 32% in 2016. (It has rebounded a bit since, but the media are increasingly perceived as a partisan institution). That trust (or lack of), however, is not evenly distributed across our society. Republicans are much less trusting of the news media, which results in a stunning asymmetry of where people across the political spectrum get their news. Those on the political left tend to trust a broad variety of mainstream sources and consume some mix of the most popular media outlets. But those on the political right only trust one major source: Fox News. The problem is that the sources trusted by Republicans have been covering coronavirus very differently from the rest of the news media.
Consider the bastion of conservative media: Fox News. Up until President Trump declared a national emergency over coronavirus on March 13, the coverage of coronavirus downplayed its danger, accused other news sources of creating mass hysteria and panic, and ventured into conspiratorial by implying that the pandemic was just another way to impeach President Trump. The coverage has dramatically shifted since the national emergency declaration, but it is still different from other sources. I have looked at how primetime shows on Fox News and MSNBC covered coronavirus, and found that although 59% of primetime Fox shows referenced experts, a much higher 81% of MSNBC primetime shows did the same. But it is not only the coverage on Fox that leaves a lot to be desired. On “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient host proclaimed to his 25 million weekly listeners that coronavirus is “being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump” and that it is nothing but a common cold. On another occasion, he ridiculed the World Health Organization. In short, prominent conservative outlets, unlike most other media outlets, have been specifically downplaying the threat of COVID-19, in contrast to what public health experts have been saying.
You could say that all of this is concerning, but at the very least trust in scientists, experts, and the CDC remains relatively high among Americans. Recent polling on this topic suggests that Americans, across party lines, tend to trust public health experts. A recent NPR poll, for example, found that 80% of Republicans trust public health experts on the issue of coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, is enjoying widespread support among the public. The problem is that, since public health experts and scientists do not have direct access to the mass public, their messages to Americans are mediated by the press. And the very low trust in most news outlets among Republicans does not make for a compelling platform to persuade these Americans to take the necessary actions to protect themselves and their families from the coronavirus. Furthermore, a considerable portion of Americans holds anti-intellectual views, and may react negatively to expert messages when combined with populist rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the President, and several other prominent Republicans, continue to stoke up anti-media sentiments among their base and continue to blame the press for the American response to the coronavirus. Newt Gingrich, for example, said that Republicans were skeptical of the threat of coronavirus because they discount “phony hysteria” from “dishonest left wing news media.” President Trump, on the other hand, called the major media outlets dishonest and accused them of siding with China on coronavirus. This not only does not help this crisis situation, but is exactly the opposite of what should be happening, given that now more than ever, Americans must trust what the news media, and public health experts on the news, tell them.
This is particularly important given that Americans are really paying attention to what is happening. Because of the magnitude of this pandemic, an unprecedented 89% of Americans declare following the COVID-19 news closely. When people pay attention to the news, they usually turn to their trusted sources, which, for Republicans, have been outlets like Fox News. And outlets like Fox have been failing them. Public polling data reveals a massive gap between Fox viewers and other media consumers. For example, only 38% of Fox News viewers are worried about coronavirus (compared to 72% of national newspaper readers or 71% of CNN viewers). Large partisan gaps exist on how people are adapting their behavior to coronavirus, like washing their hands, working from home, or changing their travel plans. There are even strong partisan differences in Google searches for coronavirus and hand sanitizer.
These differences, luckily, are not set in stone. As President Trump, and other prominent Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, have acknowledged the seriousness of this threat, and as Fox News changed the tune of its coverage, the partisan differences are dissipating. Because partisan elites are so important in shaping public opinion, this reversal by Republican elites is much needed. But that also means that any reversal in the messages sent by top Republican politicians and opinion makers on Fox News and other conservative media might reverse these opinion trends. Already, as the state of the economy declines at a rapid pace, Trump indicated his desire to loosen “stay-at-home” restrictions to jump-start the economy. Such signals, and a reversal from Fox and other conservative voices would be devastating in any national attempts to get coronavirus under control and “flatten the curve.”
In other words, the question of misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak is complicated. It’s not just a matter of reading fake news on social media; rather, the information environment is shaped by partisanship and other attitudes and habits that were in place before the crisis hit. When it comes to how Americans are getting their information about the pandemic, what we know offers both sobering realities and reasons for optimism.
Dominik Stecuła is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and a nonresident postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University. His research examines the changing news media environment and how it relates to important developments in the US, particularly the growth of political polarization, increase in populist attitudes, and attitudes about scientific issues such as climate change or vaccine safety.