The information landscape about Covid-19 is bewildering, with factual and fictional claims competing for attention. And most American adults have heard at least a couple of the fictions, according to new data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Kaiser, which is widely respected for its top-notch work on this subject, tested eight false statements about Covid. Nearly 80% of Americans surveyed said they had heard of at least one of the falsehoods and either believed it or are unsure whether it is true.
“Most commonly,” the report’s authors wrote, “six in ten adults have heard that the government is exaggerating the number of Covid-19 deaths by counting deaths due to other factors as coronavirus deaths and either believe this to be true (38%) or aren’t sure if it’s true or false (22%).”
One-third of respondents “believe or are unsure whether deaths due to the Covid-19 vaccine are being intentionally hidden by the government (35%),” the authors wrote, “and about three in ten each believe or are unsure whether Covid-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility (31%) or whether Ivermectin is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 (28%).”
The researchers also found that “between a fifth and a quarter of the public believe or are unsure whether the vaccines can give you COVID-19 (25%), contain a microchip (24%), or can change your DNA (21%).”
Vaccine microchips, trackers, changes to your DNA – these outlandish ideas have clearly made an impression on significant numbers of people. And media diets have something to do with it.
“People’s trusted news sources are correlated with their belief in COVID-19 misinformation,” the authors said. “At least a third of those who trust information from CNN, MSNBC, network news, NPR, and local television news do not believe any of the eight false statements, while small shares (between 11% and 16%) believe or are unsure about at least four of the eight false statements.”
That’s a positive sign – it suggests that traditional sources are helping people separate real news from noise and nonsense.
Only 11% of those who trusted CNN’s coverage believed four or more false statements, the smallest percentage out of any outlet reported on.
But sources like CNN and NPR are deeply distrusted by many Republicans. They gravitate toward Fox News and even-further-right channels like One America News instead. And Kaiser found that “nearly 4 in 10 of those who trust Fox News (36%) and One America News (37%), and nearly half (46%) of those who trust Newsmax, saying they believe or are unsure about at least half of the eight false statements.”
The researchers cautioned, however, that “whether this is because people are exposed to misinformation from those news sources, or whether the types of people who choose those news sources are the same ones who are pre-disposed to believe certain types of misinformation for other reasons, is beyond the scope of the analysis.”
The Washington Post called it “a sobering poll on the GOP’s embrace of coronavirus misinformation.”
Post reporter Aaron Blake followed up with Kaiser and concluded that the overall numbers “obscure just how ripe the right is for this kind of misinformation.” That’s because, “in most cases, if you exclude Republicans who haven’t heard the claims and focus on just who is familiar with them, a majority of them actually believe the claims.”
It is easy to see a relationship between this research and the current pattern of Covid-19 deaths in the United States. David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote on Monday that the partisan divide in deaths is getting wider, with residents in heavily Republican counties dying at much higher rates than those in Democratic counties.
Covid vaccines “are remarkably effective at preventing severe Covid, and almost 40 percent of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with about 10 percent of Democratic adults,” Leonhardt reported.
In the Kaiser research, unvaccinated adults were more likely than vaccinated adults to believe four or more of the eight false statements.
Sadly, the World Health Organization’s early warnings about an “infodemic” have been proven right.
“An infodemic,” the WHO said, “can intensify or lengthen outbreaks when people are unsure about what they need to do to protect their health and the health of people around them.”
American officials like Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy have been outspoken about the dangers of Covid falsehoods. On Tuesday his office released a “community toolkit,” complete with a comic strip and illustrations, to help people identify and debunk health misinformation.