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Fake news and fact-checking – study examines social media use during the pandemic

Social media was used to both spread misinformation and for fact-checking during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new study which explores how individuals perceive and make sense of information they encounter during times of global crisis.

People sitting on a wall in masks looking at mobile phones
Despite trying to avoid the spread of misinformation, some participants revealed that they too had shared content before checking if it was accurate

Psychologists at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) carried out 24 semi-structured interviews with people aged 18 – 56 to understand how they made sense of and interacted with news they suspected to be fake.

According to an Ofcom report commissioned in the first week of the UK lockdown, 49% of individuals used social media to access news and information about Covid-19, and 46% stated they had seen false or misleading information related to the pandemic.

Participants in the study described how they encountered information overload in the initial weeks of the pandemic and struggled with complex messaging from official sources, so turned to ‘simplified’ social media news feeds.

However, they would still use various sources to triangulate the trustworthiness of news stories. These included daily UK government briefings, the World Health Organisation, traditional print and broadcast media, and the social media channels of reputable organisations.

They also on relied on opinion leaders within their networks, such as “experts” in the form of social posts from medics, patients and nurses.

Some revealed that they psychologically distanced themselves from people who were perceived as generating debate about news and fake news and would avoid platforms such as Facebook, where opinion and misinformation were seen to be more prevalent, in favour of those such as Instagram and Snapchat.

Their news consumption on social media was transformed from actively engaging in content creation and sharing, to instead observing news stories as they unfolded on their social media channels.

Despite this reluctance to engage with the spread of misinformation, some participants revealed that they too had shared content before assessing the validity of information. This happened when they judged information on its ability to support social connections and on whether it would offer new insights or an amusing or positive update. Common-sense assumptions and biases – such as political views - also impacted on information appraisal.

Dr Lee Hadlington gives his top tips for dealing with fake news online

Dr Lee Hadlington, senior lecturer in Cyberpsychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, said: “We know that the consequences of fake news are far from trivial. Research has already shown that it can lead to the misallocation of resources, foster feelings of inefficiency, alienation and cynicism, undermine the legitimacy of established organisations and, importantly, become a barrier to communicating essential information at a time of crisis.

“Our findings indicate that the coronavirus pandemic has acted as a perfect storm for fake news, with individuals using social media to stay social, engaging in some fact-checking and distancing themselves from people they see as “fake-newsers”, or those who share fake news with their networks. However, we also saw that emotional reactions to the negative information, whether in humour, frustration, or in worry, led to information being shared.”

Based on the results of the study, the researchers recommend that the social media industry, clinicians, researchers, governments, social media users and their communities join together to raise awareness of the impact of fake news on behaviour and wellbeing. They also suggest that guidelines and policies are developed accordingly, including public awareness campaigns and strategies to identify fake news and curb exposure to it on social media platforms.

The paper Perceptions of fake news, misinformation and disinformation amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: A qualitative exploration is soon to be published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.

  • Notes for editors

    Press enquiries please contact Helen Breese, Public Relations Manager, on telephone +44 (0)115 848 8751, or via email.

    © 2021, American Psychological Association. This paper is not the copy of record and may not exactly replicate the final, authoritative version of the article. Please do not copy or cite without authors' permission. The final article will be available, upon publication, via its DOI: 10.1037/ppm0000387

    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2019 in the Guardian University Awards. The award was based on performance and improvement in the Guardian University Guide, retention of students from low-participation areas and attainment of BME students.

    NTU was also the Times Higher Education University of the Year 2017, and The Times and Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    It is one of the largest UK universities. With over 37,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University injects £1.6bn into the UK economy. It has been the largest recruiter of UK undergraduates in each of the last four years. With an international student population of more than 6,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook.

    The university is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable NTU to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was awarded University of the Year in the UK Social Mobility Awards 2019.

Fake news and fact-checking – study examines social media use during the pandemic

Published on 15 December 2021
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences

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