In August 2023 KFF shared the results of its Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot as part of a wider effort provide accurate information to guide health policy in the US. This examines the public’s media use and trust in sources of health information and measures the reach of specific “false and inaccurate claims”. Of the three health-related topics, COVID-19 and vaccines, reproductive health, and gun violence, the first is pertinent to our community.
KFF acknowledges that health misinformation and disinformation “long preceded the pandemic” but suggests that the “pervasiveness of false and inaccurate information” about COVID-19 and vaccines “brought into further focus” the damage that can be done. Previous KFF surveys found in 2021 and 2022 that “large shares of the public” either believed or were uncertain about false claims relating to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. The studies also emphasised the roles of traditional and social media as “vehicles” for spreading or challenging misinformation.
Testing false claims
The following specific health-related claims were presented in the survey alongside 5 others:
The study authors state that “health misinformation is widely prevalent in the US”. They suggest that 96% of adults said they had heard “at least one” of the ten items of health-related misinformation considered. The most widespread misinformation items in the survey were related to COVID-19 and vaccines. For example, 65% of people had heard or read that COVID-19 vaccines have caused thousands of deaths in otherwise healthy people, and 65% of people had heard or read that the MMR vaccines have been proven to cause autism.
Regardless of whether the respondents had heard or read specific items of misinformation, the survey asked people whether they thought each claim was “definitely true”, “probably true”, “probably false”, or “definitely false”. For “most of the misinformation items” included, between one-fifth and one-third of the public selected “definitely true” or “probably true”.
“While the most frequently heard claims are related to COVID-19 and vaccines, the most frequently believed claims were related to guns.”
Who believes what?
The study offers an insight into the profile of people who responded, revealing that across the five COVID-19 and vaccine related items (shown above) adults without a college degree were more likely than college graduates to suggest that these claims are “definitely true” or “probably true”. Additionally, “Black adults were at least ten percentage points more likely than White adults” to believe “some items of vaccine misinformation”.
Black (29%) and Hispanic (24%) adults were more likely than White adults (17%) to claim that the statement “more people have died from the COVID-19 vaccine than have died from the COVID-19 virus” is “definitely true” or “probably true”. Political identity trends were also observed, as well as community types; rural residents were “more likely” than urban or suburban counterparts to believe that false claims related to COVID vaccines are “probably or definitely true”.
Media: trusted messengers or misinformation pedlars?
The authors indicate that “large shares of the public” are “unable to identify many health-related misinformation items as definitely false”. Therefore, “trusted messengers and sources” are responsible for countering the “proliferation of health misinformation”. An example of a trusted source is a patient’s personal doctor: 93% of the public have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in their own doctor to make suitable health recommendations.
Not so for government agencies, predictably; although “most adults” have at least a “fair amount” of trust in the FDA and CDC to make the right recommendations, just one in four have a “great deal of trust” in the CDC and one in five have a “great deal of trust” in the FDA. Fewer still trust the Biden Administration on health issues.
The media available to the public provide adults with a “varied media diet”, with local TV news, national network news, and digital and online news aggregators representing the “top news sources” for US adults. Over half of the respondents “regularly” engage with these sources. However, there are further variations in consumption of traditional news sources. Adults under 30 are less likely than “older adults” to say they regularly watch local news but are more likely to use digital or online news aggregators like Apple or Yahoo News.
The results suggest that whether respondents were regular viewers or not, at least seven in ten would have at least “a little” trust in health information reported by their local TV news station, national network news, or local newspaper. However, fewer than three in ten adults would have “a lot” of trust in health information reported by each of the media sources asked about in the survey. Furthermore, regular users are “much more likely” to trust health information reported by each source.
Over half of adults who responded say that they use social media “at least once a week” including a third (33%) who use it daily. Roughly one in four (24%) suggested that they use social media at least weekly to find health information and advice, whereas four in ten would “never” do this. Of the platforms included, the most commonly used were YouTube and Facebook, with more than six in ten saying they use each of these at least weekly.
“Social media use is also correlated with being exposed and inclined to believe health misinformation.”
For example, a majority of those who use social media for health information and advice “at least weekly” have heard at least one of the false COVID-19 or vaccine claims tested in the survey and think it is “definitely or probably true”. This compares with four in ten of those who don’t use social media for health advice.
Over the next few weeks, the organisation will release additional analysis, which examines media use and trust and exposure and susceptibility to health misinformation among “key subgroups”.
What do you think of the results presented by KFF, and how can we address the clear susceptibility to misinformation in the US as well as abroad? For a workshop dedicated to these issues join us at The World Vaccine Congress in Barcelona in October. Or, subscribe for more updates like this!