A new study out of Montreal points to a link between misinformation and social media when it comes to perceptions and behaviours surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
More specifically, researchers looked at the prevalence of misinformation on social media compared to traditional Canadian news media and how exposure to false information influenced behaviour.
The study, conducted by seven researchers at McGill University, suggests that the dissemination of false information is in fact more widespread on social media than traditional news media.
Aengus Bridgman, a PhD Candidate at McGill University and the study’s co-author, said there are various explanations as to why that happens.
“Historically, organizations, large-scale news organizations felt a deep sense of sort of civic responsibility that they were trying to inform the public good,” he said.
While noting that it may not always be successful, Bridgman said that it led to the development of certain standards in the industry such as having two sources on the record or not sharing information that was suspected of being misleading.
Social media platforms, Bridgman said, “do not feel that same sense of responsibility,” although he admitted to recent efforts in that direction.
Additionally, the study found that people who primarily get their information from social media are more likely to believe false information and act accordingly, as opposed to those who consume more traditional media.
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“People who self-reported consuming a lot of Twitter news had more (misperceptions) about COVID-19, perceived it to be less of a threat and were less likely to kind of engage in social distancing measures,” Bridgman said.
That is troubling news to Gilbert Boucher, an emergency room doctor in Montreal and president of the Quebec association of emergency medicine specialists.
Now, in addition to treating patients, he says he feels a responsibility to battle misinformation online.
“We have to sit down. We have to write our own point of view. We usually have to back it up with some data or some research and that takes a lot of time,” he said.
And it can feel like an uphill battle.
“A lot of time, by the time you finish writing your messages (there are already), two or three extra (reports) coming out that are also fake.”
Bridgman said part of the problem comes from the fact that people on social media tend to trust those in their immediate networks.
He says there’s a need for consumers to develop better critical thinking and media literacy skills, as well as skepticism.
In a statement to Global News, the Canadian government said health authorities are taking the issue of misinformation seriously and working to address possible disinformation campaigns:
“Our efforts include continually monitoring the public environment and providing accurate, timely and authoritative information to the public through a variety of means, including on Canada.ca/coronavirus, Government of Canada social media accounts, and regular press conferences by the Prime Minister, various ministers and, Canadian health officials.”
André Gagnon, spokesperson for Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada, said the government is also investing $3.5 million in the fight against false and misleading COVID-19 information through its Digital Citizen Initiative.
Gagnon said that so far, 10 coronavirus-related projects have been funded through the initiative.
The study, published in Misinformation Review, involved collecting and studying data from one million public Twitter accounts in Canada, as well as articles appearing on 19 Canadian news sites and conducting a “nationally representative” survey.
The project was funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.
— With files from Global’s Dan Spector