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Covid-19 disinformation online confusing for many Brits, Ofcom finds

Image credit: REUTERS/Russell Boyce

A report from Ofcom has found that almost half of adults online in the UK have come across disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic in the past week. While most adults ignore the misleading claims, many people struggle to tell which are false.

Disinformation about Covid-19 varies from the essentially harmless to dangerous and divisive. Ofcom found that 35 per cent of adults online have seen the false claim that drinking more water can flush out the virus, while 24 per cent have seen false claims that gargling with salt water or avoiding cold food and drink can stop the virus.

Ofcom found that 55 per cent of adults say that they are ignoring false claims they come across, with 15 per cent actively using fact-checking tips. One in 14 admitted that they were forwarding disinformation.

Although most adults said that they were ignoring disinformation, 40 per cent said that they found it difficult to determine which statements about the virus are true, with the figure rising to 52 per cent among 18 to 24-year-olds. People in this age category were also found to be following official advice less strictly, with just 43 per cent claiming to be following hand-washing advice closely.

BBC news (via web, television and radio) was found to be the most popular source of information about the pandemic, followed by other broadcasters: broadcast news consumption almost doubled in March. Official sources such as the WHO and NHS were the next most popular sources, followed by social media, then newspapers. 15 per cent of people said that they also use closed messaging groups such as WhatsApp to gather information about the pandemic.

“With so much false information circulating online, it’s never been more important that people can cut through the confusion and find accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and advice,” said Yih-Choung Teh, director for strategy and research at Ofcom.

The publication of the report comes amid discussions about how to ensure that people are not misled by disinformation circulating on social media platforms. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden held meetings this week with representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google to discuss how they could clamp down harder on disinformation on their platforms. Social media platforms have taken some steps to curb the spread of disinformation, such as Facebook limiting message forwarding in WhatsApp and promoting trusted information from reliable sources about Covid-19.

Calls for a harsher crackdown on coronavirus misinformation have intensified following targeted attacks (including arson attacks) on telecommunications masts across the UK by conspiracy theorists, who believe that next-generation 5G mobile technology is causing or aggravating Covid-19. There is zero scientific evidence to suggest any connection between the technology and the pandemic, with some seriously afflicted countries such as Iran not having even introduced the technology.

Meanwhile, the UK Government has expanded a chatbot service on WhatsApp intended to provide trustworthy information about the pandemic. The Coronavirus Information Service was first launched last month and has already sent more than one million messages. It will be updated with advice on a number of new topics, with a focus on coronavirus myth-busting.

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