Conspiracy theories and COVID-19

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Misinformation related to COVID-19 constitutes an “infodemic”, the World Health Organisation has warned.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed and connected.

But that same technology has also amplified misinformation and conspiracy theories that jeopardise and undermine the global response to the pandemic.

The who, what and how of conspiracies

A project led by Professor Peter Knight from the University of Manchester has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid response fund.

The aim is to understand how and why conspiracy narratives circulate on different platforms and online spaces.

Professor Knight said:

The coronavirus pandemic is a perfect storm for conspiracy theories. Some people have had a lot of time on their hands, and little social contact. Social media mean misinformation can spread quickly and widely. Conspiracy theories have flourished.

Knight and a team of co-investigators are researching where COVID-19 conspiracies came from, how they mutated during the pandemic and how they’ve contributed to community and division.

Knight continued:

We’re investigating who has been promoting and spreading conspiracy theories, what form they take on various social media platforms, and why some theories have gained more traction than others.

We will also assess the effectiveness of the varying interventions by social media companies.

The Infodemic project will run until August 2021.

Social media and vaccine hesitancy

An ESRC-funded study by King’s College London and the University of Bristol investigated the reasons behind vaccine hesitancy, when people don’t want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The study found that people who get their information about COVID-19 from social media are more hesitant about getting vaccinated.

It also found that those who were reluctant tended to be more hesitant about vaccines in general.

Dr Siobhan McAndrew, principal investigator of the research project, said:

We have found that conspiracist suspicions and attitudes to vaccines in general form part of the connection – attitudes which likely preceded the current pandemic. The question for policy-makers is how to restore fundamental trust over the long-term, in the interests of public health.

Last updated: 8 July 2024

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