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Mon 6 July 2020
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Ivor Gaber reveals how lack of trust in government and the prevalence of social media conspiracy theories is leading to harmful health outcomes in the UK

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The public’s faith in the Government as a trusted source of accurate information about the Coronavirus pandemic has plunged, coinciding with the Prime Minister’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings ‘eye test’ trip at Barnard Castle, according to research by the prestigious Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based at Oxford University.

The Institute and YouGov first began tracking public opinion in early April when they found that of the more than 2,000 people they polled, 67% said they trusted the Government as a reliable source of news and information about Coronavirus; two months later in June, and following the Cummings controversy in May, that figure had plunged to 44%. Trust in the media also fell – but not so dramatically — down 57% to 46%. These figures contrast with the public’s continuing confidence in the NHS and scientific/medical experts whose trust levels have stayed in the high eighties.

Unregulated social media, in allowing conspiracy theories to circulate freely, appears to encourage people to act in ways that endanger their own, and the wider public’s, health. 

Another major trend the research picked up has been changes in how people are finding their news about the pandemic. At the start of April 80% said they used online sources (both news websites and social media) to find out what was happening but as scepticism about much of the information circulating about the coronavirus increased that figure fell to 69%. And there’s been a similar decline in the use of TV (and that includes the Downing Street briefings) down from 73% to 60%.

The Reuters researchers also wanted to know how people felt about the way various institutions were responding to the Coronavirus crisis– and again there was a Cummings effect hitting the Government.

Asked whether they were doing a good or bad job the NHS scored well dropping from 92% to just 86% between April and June but the verdict on the Government was close to disastrous, plunging from 54% to 26% and the Conservative Party did equally badly going down from 42% to 20% (whilst Labour started from a low base of 15% but then rose to 20%).


News Avoidance and Disinformation

Unsurprisingly perhaps, as cynicism has increased, the number of people who say they actively try and avoid news about the pandemic increased up from 15% to 24% – that means one in four of us are going out of our way NOT to hear, read or see news about the virus. This is a worrying figure given how important it is that the public hears advice and instructions about how to behave during the pandemic.

Much of this ‘news avoiding’ was probably due to the confusing messages people were receiving both from government, TV, the press and social media. The researchers found that people were very concerned about receiving misleading or false information from the various sources they used.

At the start of April, 27% were concerned that the Government was giving them misleading news or information, a bad enough figure in itself, but by June this had leapt to 42% — in other words, almost half of us no longer believe that the Government is a reliable source of news about Coronavirus. Concern about the media also rose but by less, up from 29% to 32%. Meanwhile, faith in the NHS and medical experts has remained in the high eighties.

The consequences of people believing false news about Coronavirus is of more than just academic or political significance, it is also affecting how people actually behave. The researchers found that there was a close link between people who believed in conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, such as that it was caused by the growing 5G network and those whose main source of news and information about the virus were social media. And more importantly that this was the group that were least likely to follow the lockdown rules. 

These findings were backed up by researchers from Kings College London who, in an article published in the journal Psychological Medicine, found that of the 2000 people polled,  those whose main source of news was either Youtube or Facebook, were three times more likely to have admitted that, despite having possible symptoms, they had broken lockdown rules than those who used wider sources of information.

The Kings College researchers concluded that unregulated social media, such as Youtube and Facebook, in allowing conspiracy theories to circulate freely, represent a serious problem as belief in these theories appears to encourage people to act in ways that endanger their own, and the wider public’s, health. 

These two research projects highlight the fact that unless the Government, and the major news outlets, ensure that they are providing the public with reliable and trustworthy information, people will seek out alternative, and less reliable, sources. Incidents like the Dominic Cummings Durham sojourn is only grist to the mill to those who would sow doubt and confusion.


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