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Half UK population subject to Covid-19 fake news: report

Posted on: June 4, 2020 by Ian Murray

An investigation from think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) reports that almost half of the UK population has seen or been sent what they consider to be fake news on the Covid-19 pandemic.

Separate IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls conducted before and after the Covid-19 crisis each interviewed representative samples of more than 2,000 British adults about their access to health information.

The report – Prevention in the Age of Information: Public education for public health – states:

  • Half (48 per cent) said they had seen or been sent what they consider ‘fake news’ about Covid-19 online, since the outbreak of the crisis

  • Before the Covid crisis the internet was the first point of call for health information and advice for most people, with 61 per cent going online to check symptoms or self-diagnose. Despite this, just five per cent of respondents listed the internet as their most trusted source.

  • Three quarters (75 per cent) listed the NHS website as their most trusted online source for health information or advice, whilst social media and tabloid media outlets were ranked as least likely to be considered trustworthy. 

“The results suggest that whilst the majority of people are using the internet to access health information, many may still be aware of its limitations,” stated the findings.

However, researchers warn that many will find it difficult to sift the vast amount of online information, leaving people repeatedly exposed to contradictory or even false statements.

The IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls also asked questions to test public understanding of key health issues. Findings included:

  • Vaccines: Of those polled, six per cent agreed with the false claim that vaccines can cause autism and a further 32 per cent were unsure – meaning that over a third of the public are misinformed or unsure about the health benefits of vaccines, the most important preventative treatment for many kinds of disease.

  • Cancer: Less than half (47 per cent) of the public associate obesity with cancer, despite it being the second biggest preventable cause of cancer across the UK.

  • Antibiotics: Information campaigns around the threat of antibiotic resistance appear to have been more effective – 78 per cent agreed that antibiotics were being overused in the UK.

  • Public desire for direct government communication on public health threats. Some 78 per cent say they would support continued Government use of television adverts to communicate with them about other public health concerns when the Covid-19 crisis is over and 64 per cent say the same for text messages.

The report warns that while technology and the internet have transformed how people manage and understand their health, it has also widened health inequalities and created conditions for falsehoods to thrive.

IPPR has called on the government to deliver a raft of changes, including Developing a new NHS app with new features that allow users to actively track and support healthy behaviour.

Dean Hochlaf, IPPR Researcher and lead author of the report, said: “Covid-19 has reminded us that when it comes to health, knowledge is power. The internet has been a powerful tool in communicating helpful NHS advice on how to halt the spread of this terrible disease, but misinformation remains a constant menace online that endangers lives.

“Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are a common side effect of all public health issues and crises. It’s therefore paramount that the government continues to play an active role in combatting misinformation, even after the pandemic.

In response to the report, press regulator IMPRESS, and the Independent Community News Network have both called for health information and advertising budgets to be channelled through independent local publishers as well as mainstream print and TV channels.

*Two polls were commissioned by IPPR and conducted by Savanta ComRes. The first poll, asking questions on trust in various health information sources was carried out between November 22-24, 2019 with a representative sample of 2,008 British adults (in England, Scotland and Wales). The second, asking Covid-19 related questions, was carried out between April 24-27, 2020 asking a representative sample of 2,058 British adults. Data tables can be found here.