TORONTO — Misinformation about COVID-19 is being spread online by six per cent of people in Ontario, most of them between the ages of 55 and 64, a new study has found.
Men and women in that age group were almost equally involved in sharing misinformation, though men overall were more likely to believe and spread it.
Men tended to talk about government using the pandemic to further its interests while women focused on governments as the source of the virus and fears about vaccines, according to the study published Wednesday by the Ontario Medical Association.
The research was conducted by Advanced Symbolics Inc., which applied artificial intelligence technology to Twitter posts made between March 24, 2020 and March 24, 2021.
The company said it looked at a randomized controlled sample of 200,000 people in Ontario, and used different classifiers such as the topics they posted about to determine their age.
Company CEO Erin Kelly said the age pattern is concerning.
“These are the age groups that are getting the sickest, you would presume they have friends who have become ill, or who have even possibly died,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “These are the groups that … it’s most important for them to get the vaccine because they are most at risk. That’s why it’s a concern.”
Kelly said some of the misinformation is targeted towards the older adult age cohort, and the material can also spread as people see more of their friends posting it.
“It’s a bit of an echo chamber,” she said.
Dr. Samantha Hill, president of the OMA, said the study shows that misinformation needs to be addressed across all communities and demographic groups.
“The best antidote is to provide clear, consistently high quality, factual information,” she said.
The study found many posters had been accessing right-leaning websites and U.S. politics blogs, and one U.K.-based website in particular was the source of 26 per cent of the posts.
It found engagement was highest in eastern Ontario communities, including Ottawa, its surrounding areas and rural areas, though it was present in all parts of the province.
Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a physician who has studied the psychology of decision-making, said there are some ways to tackle misinformation, such as appealing to local norms in a community and using analogies like the acceptance of other effective vaccinations.
He said testimonials from people who have reversed their position can also be a powerful way to help cut through misinformation and change people’s minds.