University of Stirling experts have investigated COVID-19 conspiracy theories in new research that seeks to fight digital disinformation or ‘fake news.’
Researchers studied social media posts from between March and June 2020 and are using their findings to suggest ways organisations and individuals can better deal with false stories intended to deceive the public.
The study analysed 87,412 posts from X, formerly known as Twitter, as well as four major COVID-19 conspiracy theories that gained attention during the early months of the pandemic. These include the 5G conspiracy; the Film Your Hospital movement; Expose Bill Gates; and the Plandemic conspiracy.
The findings showed varying levels of belief in the conspiracies. At their worst, Twitter users denied scientific literature and spread vaccine mistruths, claiming the pandemic was a hoax.
Using the idea of ‘digital mindfulness,’ the University of Stirling team created a DigiAware Toolbox. The purpose of this tool is to help people make informed decisions on fake news stories, drawing on bias awareness, risk perception and principles of crisis management.
Digital mindfulness helps people to be digitally agile and focused without distractions. In the age of continuous digital stimulation and information, the need for digital mindfulness and effective disinformation management has never been more critical, say the researchers.
Dr Wasim Ahmed of Stirling Management School, a co-author of the study, said: “Our findings highlight the need for a digital mindset in combating disinformation during major disruptive crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Government and health authorities may not have the resources to address every conspiracy, and some content may not violate social media policies. That is when the public needs resources, knowledge and a digital mindset so that they can critically evaluate information.”
He added: “Digital mindfulness through something like the DigiAware Toolbox helps people change their behaviour so that they can assess information critically and make more informed decisions. That is vital in countering future disinformation campaigns.”
Conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 have had a range of consequences, said Dr Ahmed.
“For example, the theory that 5G technology is responsible for either spreading or causing COVID-19 led to vandalism and arson of 5G towers and verbal abuse of 5G employees across the UK.
“The conspiracies around Bill Gates and the Film Your Hospital movement aimed to cause distrust in vaccines and healthcare, leading to some medical professions receiving abuse.”
Featured Image Credit: World Health Organisation