Americans are ‘super-spreaders of COVID misinformation,’ study claims

MONTREAL, Quebec — Since the start of the pandemic, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and falsehoods about COVID-19 have been running rampant. According to researchers from McGill University, America isn’t just a COVID hot zone, it’s a breeding ground for bad info. Their study claims Americans are “super-spreaders of COVID misinformation,” and warns that the U.S. “infodemic” is heading to Canada next.

Study authors posit that Canadians who are active on social media are more likely to encounter misleading coronavirus headlines. They also end up believing at least one or two of these stories and start telling their friends and family. Unfortunately, it has already started. Despite the Canadian media and government’s best efforts, many Canadians already believe various COVID conspiracies and unreliable claims. This study strongly indicates this is at least partially due to heavy U.S. media and content consumption up north.

“A lot of Canadians are struggling to understand COVID-19 denialism and anti-vaccination attitudes among their loved ones,” says lead study author and PhD candidate Aengus Bridgman in a university release.

It’s hard to separate U.S. and Canadian cultural ties

Researchers analyzed the online behavior of Canada’s 200,000 most active Twitter users for this project. They also distributed a survey gauging Canadian news consumption habits and beliefs about COVID-19. This led to the observation that heavy social media users outside the U.S. get more frequent exposure to American content. Results reveal more exposure to U.S. media also has a link with more COVID misconceptions.

Most of the unreliable COVID information shared on Twitter by Canadians originates from an American account. Researchers add Canadian Twitter accounts following mostly Americans were also more likely to share fake stories.

In Canada, politicians and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum have largely put their differences aside to focus on controlling and ending the pandemic. In America, researchers say the situation is much different. The study finds the United States is so polarized right now, politicians and media figures actively work to undermine their ideological rivals at every turn. All of this tension creates an environment in which it’s incredibly easy to push information that tells one’s desired narrative, regardless of the truth.

This situation deeply impacts Canada as well due to the two nations’ close geographic, economic, and cultural ties. Study authors explain that the average Canadian often goes out of their way to consume at least some American media.

“It’s hard for Canadian journalists, scientists and public health experts to be heard by the average Canadian, given all the noise generated by American sources,” Bridgman explains. “Countries with journalists and political leaders that don’t indulge conspiracy theories or profess anti-science views are simply not immune to dangerous infodemics.”

Social media is still driving misinformation

Researchers stress that social media is the main culprit when it comes to the spread of misinformation. For all of the recent talk from popular platforms about removing misleading content, most still use algorithms that prioritize posts evoking emotion and controversy.

“This infodemic has the capacity to change important attitudes and behaviors that influence transmission patterns of COVID-19. Ultimately, it can change the scale and lethality of a pandemic,” concludes study co-author Taylor Owen.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Political Science.

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