Researchers from North Carolina State University conducted a study to find out just why COVID-19 misinformation spreads so widely and aggressively on social media in an effort to help scientists spread correct information on diseases and more online.

The study highlighted two main reasons that misinformation about COVID-19 is difficult to tackle and control on social media. First, people believe they are above average at spotting misinformation. Second, misinformation often triggers negative emotions that resonate with people.

The team surveyed 1,793 U.S. adults and asked them a range of questions. The questions addressed four issues. First, questions focused on the extent to which study participants felt they and others are affected by COVID-19 misinformation. Second, the focus was on the extent to which misinformation triggers emotions, positive or negative. Third, participants were asked how much they support government restrictions on social media. Finally, participants were asked if they supported media literacy training corrective actions.

The results showed that participants overwhelmingly thought that other people were more vulnerable to misinformation than themselves. This is called the third-person effect, when people perceive media message as having a greater effect on others rather than themselves. This makes it harder to get people to participate in media literacy education. Results also found that content containing misinformation is likely to evoke negative emotions. People are more likely to interact with content that uses negative emotions. Messages focused on emotions were more easily transmitted on social media over neutral content, like abstract science information.

The team also found that the better a person believed they were at detecting misinformation were also more likely to support government restrictions on misinformation and corrective actions. People who experienced negative emotions were also more likely to support government restrictions.

The results are useful for the science community as they try to spread factual information and combat misinformation. Researchers say that scientists should consider using negative emotions to convey accurate information about COVID-19 and public health.

The study was published in Online Information Review.