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When it comes to COVID-19 misinformation, even some health-care workers fall prey, study finds

A survey by Quebec’s public health research institute, the INSPQ, has found that many Quebecers believe the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was made in a lab, and even more believe the government is withholding information from them. 

The INSPQ, which released the results of its study Monday, surveyed 1,000 adults between March 21 and May 31 and an additional 2,000 people through a three-day period in June. 

Of those surveyed in June, nearly one in four believed the virus that causes COVID-19 was man-made. Among people working in a health-care setting, that number was even higher — 28 per cent. 

“There were some convincing posts on social media,” said Ève Dubé, a medical anthropologist with the INSPQ. 

She said that because internet rumours and posts of false information often blend in some elements of the truth, they might look like plausible theories at first glance. 

“I think this is one of the ‘best’ conspiracy theories because it’s true that there’s this laboratory [in Wuhan] and it’s true that they’re looking at viruses so it might be possible that the virus escaped, but of course this is not what science is telling us,” Dubé said. 

Another conspiracy theory that claims the pandemic was caused by 5G towers gained a little less traction by comparison, with only six per cent of the general population surveyed  — and 13 per cent of those working in a health-care setting —  believing it to be true 

Dubé said the goal of the survey was to understand what kind of misinformation is out there so that public-health authorities can work to dispel those myths.

“It’s important to look at false beliefs and disinformation to be able to ensure that people will follow recommended measures and will adhere to public health recommendations,” Dubé said. 

“As of now, the only thing we can do to decrease the curve of the pandemic is to encourage people to wear a mask, practice physical distancing.” 

When it comes to trust in public health authorities, people also struggled: 35 per cent of the Quebecers surveyed in June felt the government was withholding information from them and an additional 12 per cent thought that might be the case. 

Still, the institute noted that as public health guidelines and information evolved, so did the attitude of Quebecers toward masks. 

In March, only six per cent of respondents said they wore a mask outside of their homes, but by mid-May that number had risen to 41 per cent. 

Social media is the culprit, studies find

Dubé ​​​​​​said false information surrounding COVID-19 has been spreading at an unprecedented rate because of social media. 

“This pandemic is worldwide,” she said. “So it’s more likely to increase the number of theories and spread of information around that.” 

Dubé believes people turn to these theories as plausible explanations because, in a sense, it brings them comfort; it may be reassuring for some to believe that someone is to blame for the virus.

The INSPQ’s findings are similar to those of a study published last month, that found almost half of Canadians believe at least one unfounded theory about COVID-19. 

Aengus Bridgman, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University and co-author of that study, found social media to be at the root of the issue.  

“What we found is that people who self-report consuming social media have far higher levels of misperceptions around COVID-19 and, very importantly, are less likely to engage in important social distancing behaviours,” Bridgman said in an interview Tuesday morning. 

He is calling on government officials to tighten regulations surrounding the spread of misinformation on social media. 

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