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How do people assess the credibility of COVID-19 related information? Personal beliefs a strong influence

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Guest post by Jaigris Hodson, Associate Professor, College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Royal Roads University, Christiani Thompson-Wagner, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Linguistics, University of Saskatchewan and Darren Reid, Ph.D. student, Department of History, University College London  

Understanding an Infodemic
Misinformation related to COVID-19 has been declared an infodemic since it has the capacity to cause almost as much damage to people’s health as the disease itself. Since misinformation is often spread on social media platforms, it is important that public health communicators understand how and why people share COVID-19 related information online, and what decisions they make that could inadvertently lead to misinformation spread. In an effort to understand some of the decisions people make when sharing COVID-19 information online, my team conducted interviews with 18 participants (12 women and 6 men) from across Canada who ranged in age from 30 to 60+. We had participants show us three examples of COVID-19 related content that they had recently interacted with (liked, shared, clicked on a link, watched a video or read an article) on social media, and we asked them questions about the content they shared with us, including some that concerned credibility. We wanted to know how participants were assessing the credibility of the content they were interacting with online, because if people can accurately determine what information and sources are credible, they will hopefully be less likely to share misinformation on their social media feeds. 

Assessing the credibility of COVID-19 information online
Our interview data suggest that people find information about COVID-19 to be most credible when it comes from a source they perceive to be an expert or when it aligns with their already existing beliefs. All 18 of our interview respondents told us that they feel information is credible when it aligns with what they already believe to be true. Furthermore, our participants told us that they were more likely to perceive a source of information as being sincere if the source was stating information that already aligned with the participant’s personal beliefs.Sixteen out of 18 participants told us that they feel information is credible when it comes from sources who are established experts. When people perceived that information was being omitted, then they expressed some doubt in the expertise of the source of the information. In other words, a source could be called into question if they were viewed as being either non-transparent or  “flip-flopping” on an issue. 

What can public health communicators do?
Expertise and trust can be accounted for in the process of public health communication. Public health communicators can ensure that they establish the expertise as part of their communication strategy. Additionally, communicators should ensure that a high level of information transparency is provided and that questions are answered directly in an effort to ensure the perception of expertise is not eroded through faulty communication. Of course, transparency can be interpreted in many ways, and analyses of public health communication during past epidemics have shown that not all interpretations are beneficial. Our research can provide some guidance as to how transparency can be implemented: many of our participants expressed frustration when they were not told where data came from, where they could access the data themselves, or why one source's information was not consistent with other sources. However, if people are assessing the quality of information based on whether it aligns with what they already believe, providing additional information may not be enough to ensure people follow public health guidelines.  

Addressing the role of credibility related to personal beliefs actually will require information literacy training on a large scale. For this reason, our team is beginning to think of public health education as needing to include information literacy. If an infodemic is a health risk, then teaching people about their own triggers for sharing misinformation is a public health intervention. 

To learn more about COVID-19 misinformation and how it spreads, check out our other blog article.

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