What do people think about fake news and misinformation, in the age of Covid-19?

As part of our Renew Normal project, Demos is conducting a series of engagement exercises via Polis, an online deliberative tool, to look at how the public view different issues in light of Covid-19. As this is an open-access survey, we can’t tell exactly how these results map onto the wider population. But crucially, we can see how different beliefs and viewpoints tend to overlap.

In this particular Polis, which focused on fake news and misinformation, we found two starkly-divided groups. So what do they look like?

Group A (101 people)

  • Little trust in public health authorities
  • Little trust in traditional media
  • Concerned that a Covid-19 vaccine is being rushed and is dangerous
  • Opposed to removing anti-vaccine content from social media

Group B (587 people)

  • Higher trust in traditional media
  • Concerned that fake news will prevent people getting a vaccine
  • Concerned that fake news stops people taking Covid-19 seriously
  • Strongly supportive of tougher action by social media companies to remove fake news and misinformation

There are strong divisions: Group A is sceptical of Covid-19, vaccines and public health, whilst Group B trusts traditional media, wants tough action to tackle misinformation, and believes fake news stops people appreciating the risks of Covid-19.

But what are the three main takeaways about their views?

  • Group A don’t trust traditional media and believe that Covid-19 is exaggerated

While 47% of Group B thought that ‘traditional media is generally a trustworthy source of information’, 68% of Group A disagreed with this statement. This tells us that Group A are less willing to accept information received via newspapers or broadcast media. This same group also agreed (58%) that ‘fake news and misinformation makes people believe Covid-19 is more dangerous than it really is’ – suggesting that they believe the risks of Covid-19 are exaggerated. Perhaps of greatest concern is that this group, which is sceptical of Covid and distrusts traditional media, also seems sceptical of the safety of vaccines – 49% of Group A agreed with the statement saying ‘I worry that fake news and misinformation will encourage people to believe a Covid-19 vaccine is safe, even though I think it comes with some risks’. 

  • There’s a strong consensus across the board that governments should not be deciding what counts as fake news

91% of Group A and 68% of Group B disagreed with government deciding what counts as fake news – an interesting point of consensus. This might suggest a couple of things. First, this may demonstrate a consensus around ‘free speech’, a widespread concern about governments determining what speech is acceptable or true. This is evidence for this elsewhere in the Polis – 57% of people (73% of Group A and 54% of Group B) agreed that ‘by censoring fake news we come dangerously close to losing free speech. It requires a very tight definition.’

However, this view might also reflect different views of what ‘fake news and misinformation’ means. Group B might fear governments labelling traditional media sources as ‘fake news’, as we have seen in the US. By contrast, Group A, who are sceptical of public health authorities, might be more concerned about governments trying to remove anti-vaccination content, by first labelling it as ‘fake news’.

  • There is strong division between the two groups around what the right course of action is

It’s not surprising that with such strongly divided groups, there were divisions over policy too. So, while 66% of Group B agreed that ‘social media networks should ban accounts which share fake news or misinformation, even if they did not create the content themselves’, an identical 66% of Group A disagreed with this statement. We found similar divisions for other policies too, with Group A being much more worried about strong regulation of social media.

So, what next? In policy terms, finding consensus is going to be a very tricky task. Our two groups are divided over who they trust, their views on Covid and vaccines, and what they define as fake news. This suggests governments need to be more creative in reaching out and trying to change the minds of people that fit into Group A, using alternative channels or local engagement, rather than national-level messaging via traditional channels. This is a vital priority, as we seek to develop and introduce a viable vaccine.  

It isn’t too late to have your say on how fake news and misinformation should be dealt with going forward! Join the conversation, and tell us your views here.