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Investigating the Accuracy of US Citizens’ Beliefs About the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Longitudinal Study With Educational Intervention

Authors

Aart van Stekelenburg, Gabi Schaap, Harm Veling, Moniek Buijzen.

Abstract

Background: The COVID-19 ‘infodemic’, a surge of misinformation, has sparked worry about the public’s perception of the novel coronavirus and Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). Misinformation can lead to belief in false information, as well as reduce the accurate interpretation of true information. Such incorrect beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to behavior that puts people at risk of both contracting and spreading the virus.

Objective: The objective of the current research was twofold. First, we attempted to gain insight into public beliefs about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in one of the worst hit countries: the United States (US). Second, we aimed to test whether a short intervention could improve people’s belief accuracy by empowering them to use the scientific consensus when evaluating claims related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: We conducted a four-week longitudinal study among US citizens, starting April 27, 2020, just after daily COVID-19 deaths in the US had peaked. Each week, we measured participants’ belief accuracy related to the coronavirus and COVID-19 by asking them to indicate to what extent they believed a number of true and false statements (split 50/50). Furthermore, each new survey wave included both the original statements and four new statements (2 false, 2 true). Half of the participants were exposed to an intervention aimed at increasing belief accuracy. The intervention consisted of a short infographic that set out three steps to verify information by searching for and verifying a scientific consensus.

Results: A total of 1202 US citizens, balanced on age, sex, and ethnicity to approximate the US general public, completed the baseline wave. Retention rate for the follow-up waves was high (minimum was 85.02%). Mean scores of belief accuracy were high at all waves, with scores reflecting low belief in false statements and high belief in true statements (scale of -1 to 1, with -1 indicating completely inaccurate beliefs and 1 indicating completely accurate beliefs; mean baseline=0.75, mean follow-up1=0.78, mean follow-up2=0.77, mean follow-up3=0.75). Accurate beliefs were correlated with self-reported behavior aimed at preventing the coronavirus from spreading (e.g., social distancing; r at all waves between 0.26 and 0.29, all Ps<.001), and were associated with trust in scientists (higher trust associated with more accurate beliefs), political orientation (liberal/Democratic participants held more accurate beliefs than conservative/Republican participants) and the primary news source (participants reporting CNN or Fox News as main news source held less accurate beliefs than others). The intervention did not significantly improve belief accuracy.

Conclusions: The supposed infodemic was not reflected in US citizens’ beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic. Most people were quite able to figure out the facts in these relatively early days of the crisis, calling into question the prevalence of misinformation and the public’s susceptibility to misinformation.

Full article

A preprint of the full article is available HERE.

Contact information

Aart van Stekelenburg: a.vanstekelenburg@bsi.ru.nl