Predictors of Disinformation Acceptance During the Early Stages of a Pandemic: A Cross Sectional Study Using the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping
A global pandemic poses a community threat which requires collaboration and rapid dissemination of factual information for containment. Disinformation campaigns have been waged against the United States and are heightened during times of unrest.
Because disinformation during a pandemic limits the ability of public health professionals to provide education and resources required to produce the behaviors that contain the spread of disease, individuals who are at-risk of disinformation acceptance should be identified for interventions utilizing health behavior theories.
"Predictors of Disinformation Acceptance During the Early Stages of a Pandemic: A Cross Sectional Study Using the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping"
Our research team conducted a cross sectional study among American adults during the early stages of the pandemic. Data were collected during a single week in late March to control for the influence of the rapidly shifting media influence on knowledge, expectations, and beliefs.
The primary purpose of the study was to identify populations at-risk for disinformation acceptance as it relates to public health prevention measures to contain the pandemic.
Health Behavior Theories
This study was based on the Transactional Theory of Stress and Coping. Using this model, our team identified transactional appraisals evaluating the severity of the pandemic and the social availability of resources for coping with the pandemic. This was measured through disinformation acceptance and a coping strategies inventory. Perceived severity of a threat is a key predictor of behavior; when disinformation campaigns target health behavior constructs, communities are hindered in their capacity to address disease outbreaks, leaving those who are vulnerable to disinformation at personal risk and at risk of spreading the threat among the community.
Measuring Disinformation Acceptance
The study assessed five key outcomes: knowledge, prevention, belief in cures, false news acceptance, and belief in conspiracy theories. Knowledge referred to an individual's understanding of basic COVID-19 facts. Prevention referred to the individual's knowledge of handwashing, social distancing, and related measures. False cures specifically addressed vitamin C, herbal medicine, and warm water. False information referred to disinformation about the virus' symptoms, severity, and novelty. Conspiracy theories referred to the belief in nefarious origins of the virus, such as the virus is "just an excuse to create a new vaccine."
Participants qualified if they were 18 years or older and lived in the United States with English as their first language. A total of 971 individuals participated in this study. Age, educational attainment, income, geographic region, religion, and political preference were all approximately normally distributed. The sample was overwhelmingly white and female (89% and 96% respectively).
Findings: Predictors of Disinformation Acceptance
This study identified three strong predictors of disinformation acceptance. Those who use complementary and alternative medicine (i.e. those in the "natural health community") were found to be two-thirds as likely to have basic knowledge about the pandemic. They were also over 5 times more likely to believe in unsubstantiated "cures" for COVID-10, and were significantly more likely to embrace false information about the pandemic, and to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, such as "the virus was intentionally released because this is an election year."
Similarly, those who identify as Republicans were approximately one-third as likely as those who identify as Democrats to have basic knowledge about the pandemic. They were also over twice as likely to embrace unsubstantiated "cures" for COVID-19 and to accept false information about the pandemic. Most worrisome, they were over 5 times as likely to embrace conspiracy theories about the origins of the pandemic.
Other at-risk groups include those who engage in denial or positive reframing as a coping method, and those who rely on spiritual practices or religion to cope. Conversely, those who use acceptance and emotional support as coping methods were significantly less likely to accept disinformation about the pandemic.
This study provides at-risk identifiers for acceptance of disinformation related to a global pandemic. Political party, spiritual or religious practices, and coping methods are all tools which may identify populations at the greatest risk of disinformation acceptance and conversely, in need of health behavior interventions.
For More Information
The study is currently in peer review.
Disclosures: This study was funded by the Franklin Health Research Foundation and was conducted by the FSIHS Research Department. The researchers who conducted this study are fully trained and certified in human participant research and do not have any conflicts of interest to declare. This study was approved by IntegReview Institutional Review Board for ethical compliance prior to patient recruitment.