People who don’t follow COVID-19 public health guidelines may have trouble telling fact from fiction, finds a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Between mid-April and early May of 2020, researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, polled 5,000 people from the United States, Spain, Mexico and the UK to find out if people who accept false news as truth also reject COVID-19 public health measures.

The Study Results

The study found that people who consider false news a reliable source of information are less likely to comply with COVID-19 public health guidelines, such as wearing a mask, handwashing and social distancing. The researchers also found that these same people are less likely to say they would receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Medical Daily reached out to two people to find out what news outlets or social media channels they use to get information about COVID-19.

Where do people get their information?

L.G., a woman from Wisconsin, told Medical Daily that she listens to a local radio talk show host for information on COVID-19 because he is “very knowledgeable on the COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines.” He presents all sides of an idea and lets the listeners come to their own conclusions, she said.

She follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) public health guidelines as best she can. She also spends time on Facebook but said she does question what is presented there. “I would say a lot of [the information on Facebook] is not science-based. … It’s personal opinions. Even when it claims to be science-based, the next day something will come out that says it’s not science-based.” L.G. admitted to not always knowing what to believe.

L. Dolan, a single mom from North Carolina, wears a mask and washes her hands, but often forgets to social distance, she told Medical Daily by email. Ms. Dolan said she doesn’t notice many people practicing the “6-foot rule” anymore.

“I don’t believe COVID-19 is as big of a threat as it has been made out to be. I am personally extremely healthy (at age 50), and I feel that most ‘healthy humans’ are not at as ‘great of a risk,’” wrote Ms. Dolan. “I will definitely refuse any COVID vaccines provided,” she said, although she denies being “anti-vaccine.”

While Ms. Dolan may not always follow COVID-19 public health measures, she feels her decisions are based on reliable information. She said that she has 15 years’ experience as a biotech pharmaceutical representative, and she spoke with medical providers and nurses about their perspective on the COVID-19 public health guidelines. She also said she researched infectious diseases online and feels confident in her decision to not “let the media and the overall panic change my daily life as a working solo parent.”

Helping weed out false information

“Making people aware of the potential threat of [misleading information] and how it can influence them is a first step” in helping people judge whether information is true or false, said the study’s lead author Jon Roozenbeek, PhD, and co-author Claudia R. Schneider, PhD, in an email to Medical Daily. Exposing people to the methods that are used to spread false information or news, called “cognitive inoculation,” can help people recognize false news when they encounter it, said the authors.

One way to make cognitive inoculation fun is to gamify [turn something into a game, with scoring, competition and rules] the process, said Dr. Schneider and Dr. Roozenbeek. Go Viral!, an online game launched by the University of Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, the UK government and Dutch media agency DROG, allows the user to create false COVID-19 news. Go Viral! is based on the game Bad News, which researchers found may make a person less receptive to false news by an average of 21% after just one play, according to a University of Cambridge article.

Dr. Schneider and Dr. Roozenbeek said that these games teach people to use logic when they encounter misleading information. Short videos and visual charts or diagrams have also been used to help people learn to tell the difference between false and factual news, they said.

The take-home

We get it. We are in scary times and it’s hard to know what, or even who, to believe when it comes to news about our world. To be sure you are getting reliable information, stick to websites that end in .gov or .edu. If you are unsure about something posted on social media, go to the source to find out the truth.