A new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has raised concerns about the risk of disinformation spread on social media amid the coronavirus outbreak, highlighting the importance of trusted news sources.
The report reveals that the rise of the internet and social media has changed the way people seek information about their health, leading the IPPR to call for a new approach to public health for the digital information age.
In response to the findings, press regulator, IMPRESS, and the Independent Community News Network have both called for health information and advertising budgets to be channeled through independent local publishers as well as mainstream print and TV channels.
Separate IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls conducted before and after the Covid-19 crisis each interviewed representative samples of more than 2,000 British adults about their access to health information and found:
- Half (48 per cent) said they had seen or been sent what they consider ‘fake news’ about Covid-19 online, since the outbreak of the crisis
- Before the Covid crisis the internet was the first point of call for health information and advice for most people, with 61 per cent going online to check symptoms or self-diagnose. Despite this, just five per cent of respondents listed the internet as their most trusted source.
- Three quarters (75 per cent) listed the NHS website as their most trusted online source for health information or advice, whilst social media and tabloid media outlets were ranked as least likely to be considered trustworthy.
The results suggest that whilst the majority of people are using the internet to access health information, many may still be aware of its limitations.
Researchers warn that many will find it difficult to sift the vast amount of online information, leaving people repeatedly exposed to contradictory or even false statements.
The IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls also asked questions to test public understanding of key health issues. This revealed gaps in key areas of public health knowledge and a desire for better information, including:
- Vaccines: Of those polled, 6 per cent agreed with the false claim that vaccines can cause autism and a further 32 per cent were unsure – meaning that over a third of the public are misinformed or unsure about the health benefits of vaccines, the most important preventative treatment for many kinds of disease.
- Cancer: Less than half (47 per cent) of the public associate obesity with cancer, despite it being the second biggest preventable cause of cancer across the UK.
- Antibiotics: Information campaigns around the threat of antibiotic resistance appear to have been more effective – 78 per cent agreed that antibiotics were being overused in the UK.
- Public desire for direct government communication on public health threats. Some 78 per cent say they would support continued Government use of television adverts to communicate with them about other public health concerns when the Covid-19 crisis is over and 64 per cent say the same for text messages
Researchers link the high level of misunderstanding about vaccines to the rise of the anti-vaccination campaign, which primarily exists online.
The report warns that people increasingly rely on social media platforms and forums for news, which risks exposing them to harmful ‘fake news’ on major health issues.
In the context of the coronavirus outbreak this is particularly troubling, the report says, as it demonstrates how easily disinformation can lead to major misunderstandings about public and personal health.
Dean Hochlaf, IPPR Researcher and lead author of the report, said, “Covid-19 has reminded us that when it comes to health, knowledge is power.
The internet has been a powerful tool in communicating helpful NHS advice on how to halt the spread of this terrible disease, but misinformation remains a constant menace online that endangers lives.
“Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are a common side effect of all public health issues and crises. It’s therefore paramount that the government continues to play an active role in combatting misinformation, even after the pandemic.
“Official health information is always beneficial, so the government should step up its efforts to ensure that the public is always up to date and well informed about any health threats we may face.”
Alongside the Bedford Independent, trusted, regulated local news sources are fighting the spread of misinformation – often with limited resources.
Said Emma Meese, director of the Independent Community News Network, “Our members have reported record traffic to their websites since the pandemic began showing that communities are seeking out reliable and trusted local sources of news and information during the lockdown.
“In an era where misinformation and disinformation – both online and offline – are rampant, it is vital that governments show their support for high-quality reputable independent news outlets.
“Unfortunately, this is not happening. Instead, through support packages and advertising revenue that only benefits large news organisations, many communities across the country do not have access to vital information at this time.
“We support the measures put forward by IPPR. However, we would add that in light of the rapid growth of independent sources of news, measures must be taken to develop partnerships between the NHS and public health authorities and quality and reputable sources of public interest news to address misinformation and disinformation and the growing lack of locally relevant news content.”
“The media plays a vital role in providing trusted high-quality journalism to counter the spread of misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19,” said Ed Procter, Chief Executive Officer, IMPRESS
“That is why it is so important to call out and swiftly correct low-quality content which spreads misinformation and conspiracy theories.
It is of utmost importance that IMPRESS and other regulators are ready to urgently investigate inaccurate reporting on COVID-19 that is not corrected quickly and prominently.
“We encourage readers to get in touch with us if they have concerns about the quality of reporting in any of the 142 newspapers and websites that we regulate.
“As a response to COVID-19, we have increased our advice to publishers on how to report responsibly on this matter, following our Standards Code and guidance.
“Truthful, accurate and fact-based reporting is imperative during a public health crisis.”