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Covid-19 disinformation propagates fastest among users of niche social media apps

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Users of niche social media platforms such as VK and Weibo are most likely to have admitted to sharing false claims relating to the coronavirus pandemic a Cardiff University study has found.

A group of researchers at the University’s Crime and Security Research Institute investigated exposure to disinformation in the UK, using results from surveys of 722 UK citizens carried out in March and April.

They found that just over half (51 per cent) of people had seen disinformation or fake news about the pandemic in the past month, with 79 per cent of these people saying that they had seen more fake news than in the past.

“Our research carried out at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown shows the worrying extent of disinformation during this pandemic,” said Professor Kate Daunt, who led the study. “More than half of those questioned identified false information online relating to Covid-19, and it’s likely that within the remaining 49 per cent, there are a large number of people who have been exposed to fake stories without realising it.”

A significant fraction of people (12 per cent) admitted that they had intentionally or unintentionally shared coronavirus disinformation with others recently.

Young people were overrepresented in this group (28 per cent were aged 18-29), with users becoming less likely to admit to sharing disinformation with age. Just seven per cent of people above the age of 70 said they had shared disinformation relating to Covid-19.

The worlds most popular social media platform, Facebook, had the lowest proportion of daily users who admitted to sharing Covid-19 disinformation (14 per cent), followed by Instagram (18 per cent), and Twitter (20 per cent). Daily users of other social media platforms had higher numbers of people admitting to sharing fake news: Russian platforms VK and OK had 44 per cent and 36 per cent respectively, Chinese platforms Weibo and TikTok had 37 per cent and 33 per cent respectively, LinkedIn had 34 per cent, and Tumblr 30 per cent.

The research also showed that distrust in government, scientists, and other authorities was higher in people who had been exposed to disinformation.

“There has been much discussion on the responsibilities of mainstream social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter in tackling fake news, but our research demonstrates that this approach may be overly simplistic,” said Daunt. “We think some people may share content to call out inaccuracies. But because of the way that the social media platform algorithms work, this may have actually succeeded in giving the Covid-19 disinformation more credence and prominence.”

“Disinformation risks damaging trust and causing confusion at a time when people are searching for clarity. With restrictions on our way of life set to continue for months to come, a deeper understanding of how fake news spreads across multiple platforms is going to be vital to ensure accurate public health messages do not get lost.”

The results of the survey correlate with findings from Ofcom; the communications regulator has estimated that half of UK citizens were exposed to coronavirus disinformation in April.

Concerns about Covid-19 disinformation in the UK intensified after a spate of arson attacks against mobile masts, and attacks and threats against telecommunications engineers. This behaviour was motivated by a completely unfounded conspiracy theory which claims that 5G technology causes or aggravates Covid-19 in humans; disinformation which has been amplified by some celebrities.

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