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Does Social Media Foster Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories?

01 January 2022
Does Social Media Foster Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories?

Scott McGreal :
Increasing numbers of people get their news from social media rather than traditional news sites. This has caused concern about spreading misinformation, including conspiracy theories, on these sites.
However, there are notable differences in features between the major social networking sites, for example, Facebook and Twitter, that might affect whether people accept or reject misinformation encountered online. There are also differences between the characteristics of people who use each site that is likely to be important.
A recent study tested whether differences in preferences for social media platforms were related to whether users accepted or rejected conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic (Theocharis et al., 2021). Using a large online survey conducted in 17 countries (16 in Europe, plus Israel) in mid-2020, they asked people how often they follow news on social media during a typical week and which social media platform, if any, provides political news that they read. Specifically, they focused on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Messenger. Additionally, respondents were asked about how much they believed in each of three popular conspiracy theories about COVID-19 (e.g., a vaccine is already available, but pharmaceutical companies are keeping it secret; China deliberately created the coronavirus as a bioweapon; the coronavirus is the accidental leak of a US military secret experiment).
They also controlled for various other factors that might have affected the results, such as political knowledge, political and media trust; frequency of news consumption through different media; political interest, ideology, and ideological extremism; as well as demographic factors, such as age, sex, and education. Belief in all three kinds of conspiracy theory was positively correlated.
People who believed in one tended to also believe in the others, even though these would appear to contradict each other. This is in line with previous findings that believers in conspiracy theories will simultaneously accept contradictory theories.
The overall results pooled across countries showed that people who preferred using Twitter to obtain news were somewhat less likely to believe in conspiracy theories about COVID-19. At the same time, users of all the other platforms, i.e., Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and Messenger, were somewhat more likely to believe in them.
However, when they looked at the results for individual countries, they found that the effects were significant only in certain countries but not others, although these varied depending on the platform. For example, the negative effect of Twitter on conspiracy theory beliefs was significant in five countries. In comparison, the positive effects of Facebook and YouTube on such beliefs were significant in six countries each, although not the same ones.
The authors suggested that differences in features between these sites may facilitate or inhibit the spread of conspiracy beliefs. For example, discussion on Facebook tends to be more socially oriented, which may stifle dissent as people may be reluctant to openly disagree with friends and family (although admittedly, disagreements on Facebook can be quite intense).
In contrast, Twitter is a public forum in which people are more likely to be exposed to dissenting views, and misinformation may be subject to more scrutiny that allows it to be more readily corrected with fact checks. However, these reasons are unlikely to apply to YouTube, which is not as socially oriented as Facebook.
Why does the platform make a difference in willingness to accept conspiracy theories?
The results are also in line with those of a previous study that found that, over a period of several months, people who used Twitter more frequently developed increased knowledge of current affairs, while more frequent users of Facebook actually showed decreased current affairs knowledge over the same period (Boukes, 2019).
Boukes suggested that the design of the two platforms may have different effects on how much news a person is exposed to. Specifically, the design of Twitter facilitates acquiring news, whereas certain features of Facebook are less suited to this purpose. Additionally, Facebook algorithms manipulate what content goes to the top of people's timelines so that users see more personal messages such as updates from friends rather than news.
However, in the study by Theocharis et al. (2021), participants indicated that they actively used each platform to read the news. The authors also considered users' existing political knowledge and how much time they spent consuming news. Hence, differences in the amount of news a person was exposed to are unlikely to explain why users of different platforms tend to accept or reject conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
In the discussion of their findings, Theocharis et al. note that Twitter users "combine higher than average education with a greater tendency for news-seeking and engagement into political discussions than any of the platforms in our study." However, they did control for differences in education and news-seeking in their analysis. Therefore, these factors probably are not enough to explain the differences they found between users of Twitter compared to other platforms.
One study found that differences in a personality trait called a need for cognition between people who prefer Twitter or Facebook to obtain information (Hughes et al., 2012). Need for cognition refers to a person's motivation to engage in and enjoy effortful thinking and intellectual activity. People who preferred using Twitter to obtain information tended to be higher in need for cognition, whereas those who used Facebook for this purpose tended to be lower in this trait.
Furthermore, the effects were only significant in some countries and not others. Hence, there would be plenty of exceptions to the general trend on each platform. In any case, a takeaway message is that it is not the platform but how you choose to use it that will affect your view of the world and what you choose to believe.

(Scott McGreal is a psychology researcher with a particular interest in individual differences, especially in personality and intelligence).

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