The impact of conspiracy theories and social media

A summary of research published in the Psychological Medicine journal

There is a growing evidence that false health information is circulating on social media platforms. This is concerning because when this information is read and believed, it can lead to people ignoring advice to protect health. The authors of this study aimed to assess the impact of social media on people’s behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What did the study look at?

The researchers performed online questionnaires in the UK. They asked people about social media use, their beliefs regarding conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 and what measures they take to protect themselves (including questions about handwashing and social distancing). They also asked about the use of traditional media, such as newspapers and radio.

What do the results show?

The results found a link between belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories and people not taking steps to protect their health during the pandemic. They also found a link between belief in conspiracy theories and the use of social media as a source of information about COVID-19. Specifically, their findings revealed:

  • People who believed one or more conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 were less likely to follow advice to protect their health, such as handwashing and social distancing measures.
  • People who believed one or more conspiracy theories were more likely to use social media as a source of information, rather than traditional media such as newspapers or the radio.
  • People who used one or more social media platforms to gather information about COVID-19 were more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory.

Why is this important?

Social media is largely unregulated, so it can easily become a place where misinformation (information that is not true or is misleading) can spread.  This may cause a health risk if people believe the misinformation they read and change their actions because of it.

During the pandemic, organisations such as the World Health Organization have taken steps to provide reliable sources of information online. This includes a Whatsapp health alert service and their #HealthyatHome campaign. The European Lung Foundation has also provided a COVID-19 resource hub and regularly shares the latest information on its social media platforms.

It is important to check the validity of what you read on any media source. Ask yourself, where has the content come from, who has shared it and where was it first published? If it is on a website, look at the site mission and contact information to check if it is legitimate. If you are still unsure, ask the experts. Check the ELF COVID-19 resource hub for respiratory-specific information about COVID-19. If you have any other respiratory health questions relating to the outbreak please get in touch

The European Patient Ambassador Programme also includes a section on how to find reliable information. Find out more

Read the original research paper

Title: Health-protective behaviour, social media usage and conspiracy belief during the COVID-19 public health emergency