Americans Struggle to Navigate COVID-19 “Infodemic”

Journalism / Article

The novel coronavirus pandemic has spawned what the World Health Organization is calling an “infodemic,” an overabundance of information — some of it false — about COVID-19. Americans divide evenly over whether it is harder or easier to be well-informed about the coronavirus because of easy access to a wide variety of information sources. Fifty-eight percent believe they are well-informed about the virus. Separately, 36% indicate they feel overwhelmed.

U.S. adults acknowledge that misinformation about the virus is a major problem. Asked to identify the two most common sources of misinformation, a combined 68% name social media and 54% the Trump administration, though more give the Trump administration as their first response (47%) than social media (15%).  Americans are about equally likely to rely on one of three approaches — consulting health professionals or information sources directly, sticking with their most trusted news sources, or looking at a wider variety of news sources than usual — to help them sort out accurate from inaccurate information. But young adults and older adults differ in their strategies.

These results are part of a special April 14-20 Gallup/Knight Foundation survey focused on the coronavirus situation, part of the Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.

The Infodemic

Americans’ attention to news has increased during the coronavirus situation. In addition to standard news sources like television and newspapers, they can also get information on demand through the internet and social media. When asked if the amount of information available about the coronavirus makes it easier or harder to be well-informed, half say it is easier, and half say it is harder.

People’s opinions about whether it is easier or harder to be informed are strongly related to their attitudes about the media, more so than any other variable, including partisanship. Whereas 70% of those who have a positive opinion of the media say it is easier to be informed, 64% of those with a negative opinion of the news media say it is harder.

The survey finds 58% of Americans describe themselves as well-informed about the coronavirus. Americans with a positive opinion of the news media are nearly twice as likely as those who view it negatively to say they are well-informed, 79% to 41%.

Meanwhile, 36% of U.S. adults indicate they feel overwhelmed by the amount of information on the coronavirus. Nearly half of those who say it is harder to be informed, 48%, say they feel overwhelmed.

Republicans, Democrats and independents are about equally likely to say they feel overwhelmed, as are those who have a positive or negative opinion of the news media. But young adults are more likely than older adults to say they feel overwhelmed. The reasons behind the age differences are unclear. Although young adults indicate they pay less attention to news than older adults (those 55 and older), their attention levels are on par with middle-aged adults.

Solutions to Navigating Infodemic Vary, Particularly by Age

When asked how they go about deciding what is accurate about the coronavirus and what is not, Americans are about equally likely to rely on one of three approaches. Thirty-four percent say they get information from the one or two sources they trust most; 31% consult health professionals or official health organization websites directly, and 30% consult a wider variety of news sources than usual. Just 4% rely on friends and family to help sort out information about the novel coronavirus.

Younger and older Americans are taking very different approaches to determining what coronavirus information is accurate. Whereas adults under age 35 are most likely to consult healthcare professionals or health websites, adults ages 55 and older are most likely to rely on the one or two news sources they trust most. In fact, young adults are more than twice as likely as older adults to consult health professionals (41% to 18%), while older adults are more than twice as likely as young adults to focus on their most trusted news sources (49% to 23%).

Although young and old adults take different approaches to evaluating COVID-19 information, partisans largely do not. Similar proportions of Republicans and Democrats focus on their main news sources (40% and 36%, respectively) or consult a wider variety of news sources (32% and 29%). Democrats are modestly more likely than Republicans to consult health professionals or health websites, 32% to 22%.

Misinformation Seen as Big Problem

In addition to normal partisan disputes about how well federal and state elected officials are handling the coronavirus situation, information about it has been marked by claims of possible cures for COVID-19 and methods to avoid catching it. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. adults believe that false or inaccurate information about the coronavirus has been a major problem. Most of the rest say it has been a minor problem.

Members of most key subgroups share high levels of concern about coronavirus misinformation, with only slight party differences — 82% of Democrats, 79% of independents and 73% of Republicans believe it is a major problem.

Americans were asked to name the two most common sources of information.  Majorities identify social media (68%) and the Trump administration (54%) on the basis of combined first and second choices. Forty-five percent name the mainstream national media as their first or second most common source of COVID-19 misinformation.  Smaller percentages choose state elected officials, family and friends, or local news.

Even though social media ranks first based on combined first and second mentions, just 15% identify as the “main source.”   Americans mainly choose the Trump administration (47%) or  the mainstream national news (33%) as the primary source of misinformation. 

Partisans have clear ideas of what entities are most responsible for misinformation. For Democrats, it is the Trump administration; for Republicans, it is the mainstream national news media. But Democrats are more likely to name the Trump administration than Republicans are to name the mainstream media. Independents are about equally likely to name the Trump administration and the mainstream news media.

Americans Want Social Media Companies to Police Coronavirus Misinformation

Four in 10 Americans believe social media companies should immediately remove any posts on their websites or apps that they suspect contains misinformation about the coronavirus. An equal proportion say the post should be left up until the social media company can confirm it contains misinformation. Relatively few, 14%, think social media companies should leave the posts up without checking whether it contains misinformation.

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans and independents to favor an aggressive approach to combatting misinformation. A majority of Democrats, 57%, believe social media companies should remove posts they suspect contain misinformation immediately. Republicans and independents lean toward having social media companies leave the posts up until they can confirm it contains inaccurate information. Of all party groups, Republicans are most likely to say the post should be left alone without checking its veracity.

Implications

Other than health professionals who study infectious diseases, Americans had little if any knowledge of the coronavirus when the disease spread to the U.S. As such, key information sources like the news media, the internet and social media helped fill the knowledge gap.

The accuracy and the quality of the information people learn about COVID-19 could literally affect their physical health, and in the extreme, could have life or death consequences for them.

At a time when Americans have access to a wide range of information, the “infodemic” includes not only factual information reported by scientists and government officials but also unsubstantiated rumors and outright false information.

As such, trust in institutions that attempt to educate the public, including federal and state public health agencies, federal and state elected officials, and the news media, is critical to navigating the pandemic. As evidence of the importance of trust in institutions, Americans who view the news media positively report it has been easier to be informed about the coronavirus, while those who view the news media negatively are finding it harder to be informed.

Learn more about how the Gallup Panel works.