Who do the public trust for news about COVID-19?

Molly Anders

Sep 18, 2020

Who do the public trust for COVID info? Hint: Not social media or politicians

More people are turning to social media to catch up on the news, despite increasing amounts of misinformation and disinformation found on social media platforms, particularly related to COVID-19. And yet new data from the Development Engagement Lab shows that the majority of the public are extremely distrustful of social media when they’re looking for COVID-19 news and information. So who do the public trust? How can social media-dependent aid organisations cut through the noise?

Last year, OfCom’s annual News Consumption Survey reported an increase in the number of UK residents turning to social media for news. Among the general population, 49% reported using social media for news, compared to 44% in 2018. The survey showed a corresponding tilt among those getting their news from TV: from 79% to 74%. When you cut the data by age, the shift to social media as a source of news becomes primarily generational: 75% of 16-24 year olds report receiving most of their news from social media.

At the same time, misinformation and disinformation continue to flourish online, primarily on social media, through the use of fake news stories from ostensibly reputable sites as well as “deep fake” videos, which a new report from the Overseas Development Institute says could be ‘the most serious artificial intelligence threat’ to face the news ecosystem. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has brought the reality of dis- and misinformation into stark relief, as quack cures and conspiracies proliferate social media, potentially undermining public health and putting lives at risk.

It sounds like the B-plot for a pandemic film: The public increasingly rely on social media for news, just as news on social media becomes not only unreliable, but downright sinister. Meanwhile, aid organisations’ social media appeals and campaigns are in full swing, and because of the pandemic, social media, will remain an essential channel for reaching current and potential supporters. What impact will the vast amounts of mis- and disinformation on social media have on these efforts? Are the public still receptive to non-COVID-related content? Or are charity appeals swept into the category of “fake news”, in the public’s view?

The Development Engagement Lab has uncovered an encouraging, albeit curious trend in media consumption and public trust. When asked to rank sources of COVID-19 news, an overwhelming majority of respondents in Great Britain, the United States and Germany say news from social media cannot be trusted. Not by a long shot.

Across all three countries surveyed, social media scored dead last for trustworthiness. In Great Britain, only 6% said they trusted social media for COVID-19 news. The nearest rival in sketchiness is Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom only 31% of the public said could be trusted to convey reliable information about COVID-19. By comparison, TV garnered much more trust - across the three countries surveyed, the 39% of the public said they felt they could safely rely on TV for news and information about COVID-19.

An honest politician

The British Prime minister isn’t the only politician at the bottom of the list of trusted COVID-19 information sources. In the United States, only 34% of respondents said they trust President Donald Trump for reliable information about the pandemic, narrowly defeating the US government more broadly. Have we entered a ‘post-trust’ era of politics, in which a dishonest or inept politician conditions his base to accept a lack of integrity, or even embrace it as a form of innate, ‘hunch’-based wisdom?

Possibly, though Angela Merkel, Germany’s politically progressive chancellor, received only a middling trust assessment, when it comes to information related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who do the public trust?

Across the board, respondents ranked public health organizations, followed closely by the World Health Organization, among the top three most trustworthy sources of information about COVID-19. Even in the U.S. the WHO ranked third, after public health organizations and local health officials. This is despite the president’s repeated claims of WHO incompetence and bias, and despite his capricious support for state-run and local health organizations.

Interestingly, Germany ranked “family and friends” the most trustworthy sources of COVID-19 information. This possibly indicates that the pandemic is pushing German residents to look inward, drawing down from a globalized view to a more local or regional sphere, as vulnerabilities in healthcare facilities and communities becomes more apparent. It might also reflect a general scepticism about other sources of COVID-19 information, or a wariness of the usual channels in the midst of recent social upheaval.

What we know

The message for those in the aid space trying to reach the public is simple: The field is thick with mis- and disinformation, and unless you’ve managed to steer entirely clear of social media in the COVID-19 era, you will meet the sceptics, probably more and more. In a way, it’s something to be grateful for: Overwhelmingly the public is proving to be savvy and able to discern what’s real. Arming yourself with facts and transparent objectives will serve well in the face of the sceptics, and maybe even the cynics.

Written by

Molly Anders

Molly Anders

Research Insights and Engagement Lead at the Development Engagement Lab

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