“Brits more susceptible to fake news than the Dutch”

White-Shouldered Bat by Wilson Bilkovich CC-BY-SA

Research into responses to Covid-19 fake news has shown that compared to the Dutch public, the British are not as good at judging false coronavirus stories to be unlikely.

Covid-19 and the Rhetoric of Untruth project (C-TRUTH), an Anglo-Dutch research partnership run by the University of Wolverhampton, Free University (Netherlands) and the Meertens Institute (Netherlands), investigates the impact of fake news and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus crisis.

The researchers map and analyse the public’s engagement with fake news during the pandemic through a multidisciplinary approach that involves analysis of Twitter activity as well as online surveys in English and Dutch.

They assess the risk of misleading and inaccurate news stories and the impact on people’s behaviour, through analysis of the socio-cultural, cognitive, psychological, and other demographic factors that are involved in the public’s engagement with disinformation during the crisis.  

Sebastian Groes, C-TRUTH’s Principal Investigator and Professor of English at the University of Wolverhampton, said: “This research is unique because its comparative focus on British and Dutch citizens gives us new insights into which specific stories evoke different responses. 

“The results give us a clue as to how the socio-cultural context might give a population a different judgment of news stories.

“It seems that overall the Dutch are cannier when it comes to resisting the appeal of fake news and conspiracy stories, though the results are really about subtle specificities.

“We are currently delving deeper into the causes of this discrepancy by looking at a number of factors, including demographical factors such as age, gender and education, as well as social media use.”

The team can reveal that in many cases news stories are judged extremely implausible by almost everyone in both surveys, which have drawn almost 1,400 respondents altogether. 

A story saying that Bill Gates was using the 5G network to implant nanobots into people’s bodies in order to track and control them, or another saying that Covid-19 was designed to kill the elderly (promoted by Roseanne Barr in July), are both judged as extremely implausible by almost all of the participants (97.65 per cent in the Dutch survey and 96.7 per cent in the British one). 

Just over 10 per cent of all participants thought it likely, or extremely likely, that the Covid-19 virus is ‘Mother nature’s revenge for humanity polluting the Earth’. Professor Groes added: “This statistic is particularly interesting as it indicates that a not inconsiderable proportion of the population thinks that the earth’s ecosystem – which is personified – has some kind of will.”

When asked whether ‘it has been proven that the Covid-19 virus emerged as a result of people eating bats’ over a quarter of participants consistently judged this to be likely. In total almost 30 per cent of the British public thinks this is likely even though the bat eating connection has not been scientifically proven; we don’t know how humans contracted the virus in the first place.

There are some differences between the UK and Dutch data, suggesting that respondents to the Dutch survey seemed to be slightly better at rating false stories as unlikely or extremely unlikely.  

For instance, the idea that the Covid-19 virus was accidentally created and escaped after which officials tried to cover up their mistake’ is rated more plausible by the British (22 per cent) compared to the Dutch (10.7 per cent). In the UK sample, 16 per cent think that the idea the virus is a laboratory-made bioweapon is more plausible than the Dutch sample (4.9 per cent).

To the claim that ‘some Covid-19 hoaxes are being spread by Russian trolls for destabilising purposes’, 52.3 per cent of the British respondents said this was likely or extremely, though 29.8 per cent found this unlikely or extremely unlikely. This compares with the Dutch participants; 64.3 per cent of whom deemed it likely or extremely likely, and only 20.8 per cent found this unlikely or extremely unlikely.

Professor Mike Thelwall, Professor of Data Science at The University of Wolverhampton said: “This seems to suggest that the Dutch are more suspicious of Russian dis- and misinformation producers compared to the British population.

“It was interesting to compare the fake news circulating on Twitter in different countries.

“Some UK fake news, such as 5G causing Covid-19, is rightly ignored in many other countries, but they have their own strange replacements, such as Covid-19 being spread by Russian tree pollen.”

The harm of fake news and conspiracy theories on health is substantial, but it also hampers the road to socio-economic recovery. Some members of the public ignore or actively protest against government advice and policies, posing safety and security threats.  

The data analysed was gathered between May and October 2020.

Read the University of Wolverhampton news story from June 2020 looking at various conspiracy theories associated with Covid-19. The C-TRUTH research project, which included a fake news test, has already received widespread coverage in the Netherlands and was featured on BBC’s Digital Planet.

Covid-19 fake news on Twitter

Overall, UK Twitter is very suspicious of Bill Gates and treats the possible bat origins of Covid-19 and the 5G conspiracy theory as material for jokes.

5G conspiracy.

The last UK tweet in our dataset that publicized this theory or agreed with it was sent on 5 April. After that, it was still tweeted about, but as an example of a mad theory.

Bill Gates to blame for Covid-19

Large numbers of UK Covid-19 tweets were about Bill Gates, with little evidence of a reduction. Most seemed to be suspicious of anything that he did.

Chinese people eating bats as a possible cause

This was a topic of interest at the start of the pandemic and persisted as a source of jokes, such as “Think we should blame coronavirus on Ozzy Osbourne he was eating bats well before the Chinese”.