Research: Half UK adults exposed to fake Covid-19 claims

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Almost half of UK online adults came across false or misleading information about coronavirus (Covid-19) in the last week, media regulator Ofcom has found.

Ofcom is conducting weekly research to help understand how people are receiving and acting on information during the current pandemic.

Its first results from week one of the ‘lockdown’ show that the most common piece of false information around coronavirus is the claim that drinking more water can flush out the infection (seen by 35 per cent of online adults). That is followed by claims that it can be alleviated by gargling with saltwater, or avoiding cold food and drink – both pieces of misinformation seen by nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of online adults.

Among people who have been exposed to falsehoods about the virus, two thirds (66 per cent) are seeing it every day. Ofcom’s research also shows that:

  • Most people (55 per cent) are ignoring false claims about coronavirus. Fifteen per cent are using fact-checking tips from the media, such as the BBC’s website, while a similar proportion (13 per cent) are double-checking with friends and family. One in 14 people are forwarding on false or misleading information about the virus.
  • Many people (40 per cent) are finding it hard to know what is true or false about the virus. This rises to more than half (52 per cent) of 18-24 year-olds.
  • Younger people are following official advice less closely. Virtually all people who took part in the survey said they are closely following the official advice to practice social distancing (98 per cent); only go outside for essential reasons (97 per cent); and wash their hands regularly (96 per cent). However, only 65 per cent of people said they were following handwashing advice very closely, and this falls to 43 per cent among 18-24s.

Some common false claims about the coronavirus include ‘Drinking more water can flush out the infection’ (seen by 35 per cent of adults online) and ‘It can be treated by avoiding cold food and drink’ (seen by 24 per cent of adults online).

Almost all online adults (99 per cent) are getting news and information about coronavirus at least once a day, while one in four (24 per cent) are doing so 20 or more times each day. But conversely, more than one in five (22 per cent) said they are trying to avoid news about the pandemic.

People are most likely to turn to the BBC’s TV, radio and online services for the latest news on the pandemic (82 per cent), followed by other broadcasters (56 per cent); official sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), NHS and the Government (52 per cent); social media (49 per cent); newspapers (43 per cent); and family and friends (42 per cent). Only 15 per cent used closed messaging groups to get information, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

People are relying heavily on broadcast television to keep up-to-date with news about coronavirus. Average daily news viewing across all channels was up by 92 per cent in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Both BBC News and Sky News have also seen their viewing more than double year-on-year. The Prime Minister’s Statement, which aired on March 23rd, is the most-watched programme of 2020 so far; an average of 28 million viewers tuned in across the six channels it was shown on.

Public officials are the most trusted sources of news about coronavirus. Of those that use them, at least nine in 10 people trust information provided by the NHS (95 per cent), the WHO (94 per cent), their local health services (91 per cent) official scientists (90 per cent), and the Government (89 per cent).

Traditional broadcasters are also highly trusted: 83 per cent of people trust coverage on BBC TV and Channel 4, followed by ITV (82 per cent) and Sky (75 per cent). Social media and closed messaging groups were the least trusted sources of news about the pandemic (21 per cent and 26 per cent respectively).

Access to accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and information has never been more important. So, with the support of its Making Sense of Media Panel and Network, Ofcom has collected a set of resources to provide people with useful tools to navigate news and information about Covid-19.

Many of these focus on debunking common misconceptions or harmful claims about the coronavirus. But there are also useful tips on how to seek out reliable content; how to tell fact from fiction; and how to find out who is behind particular claims.

Ofcom has also included a section for families, to help parents support their children’s critical understanding during this time.

“People are turning to public authorities and traditional broadcasters for trusted information about Covid-19, and the vast majority say they’re closely following official advice,” noted Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Group Director for Strategy and Research. “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.”


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