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Trust in COVID-19 information from U.S. government sources plummeted between March and April, study finds

New research indicates there was a steep decline in trust of COVID-19 information provided by U.S. government sources between March and April, during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak. The study has been accepted for publication in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance.

“Our interest in this topic stemmed from some concerns, particularly back in March and April, that COVID-19 misinformation was increasingly being spread across a variety of different platforms, and that people were becoming more and more skeptical and untrustworthy of much of the information they were receiving,” said study authors Shahmir Ali and Ralph DiClemente, a PhD student and a professor, respectively, at the NYU School of Global Public Health.

“We were also realizing that there had been a push to elevate certain information sources (such as government websites) for information on COVID-19, but it was still quite unclear whether people were in fact using these government websites or, importantly, whether they were trusting them as sources of COVID-19 information. These concerns are what pushed us to add specific questions on COVID-19 information source usage in the nationwide survey our team at the NYU School of Global Health developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The study, based on responses from 11,242 U.S. adults recruited via Facebook advertisements, found that only 53.3% of participants viewed official or government websites as their most trusted sources of information for COVID-19 in March. This percentage dropped to 36.8% in April. But the odds of trusting other websites, radios or podcasts, and spouses/partners more than doubled during that same time frame.

Participants who reported using government sources tended to score better on a test of COVID-19 knowledge compared to those who did not. They were also less likely to believe that the coronavirus was released as an act of terrorism, that the media was overplaying the threat of COVID-19, and that warmer weather would reduce the spread of the virus.

“We had a number of both expected and surprising findings. As expected, the usage and trust of different types of information sources (as well as the total number of information sources used) varied considerably across gender, age, political affiliation, and other personal attributes. Men and older individuals for instance were significantly less likely to both use and trust government websites as a source of COVID-19 information,” Ali and DiClemente told PsyPost.

“On the other hand, what was surprising was that compared to respondents who answered the survey in March, respondents in April were more likely to use fewer sources of information and, at the same time, the odds of putting the most trust on trusting government websites was about half that of those who responded in March. This finding may suggest that, as time progressed, people were beginning to rely on a fewer number of sources for COVID-19 information, and put more of their trust on sources of information outside of government websites.”

The researchers also found evidence that different mainstream news sources were associated with different beliefs about COVID-19. Those who used CNN or MSNBC as sources of information were more likely to agree that the coronavirus is deadlier than the seasonal flu, the amount of media attention to coronavirus has been adequate, and coronavirus is a bigger problem than the government suggests, and disagree that warmer weather would reduce the spread of coronavirus. The opposite was true among those who reported using Fox News as a source of information.

But as with any study, the new research comes with a few caveats.

“One major limitation is that, since our participant sampling relied upon social media advertisements, there are many aspects of our population sample that were not nationally representative. For instance, we weren’t able to receive a large enough sample of racial and ethnic minorities to do an in-depth analysis on trends in COVID-19 information source usage across different racial and ethnic groups,” the researchers explained.

“Likewise, it’s important to note that many of the categories of information sources we analyzed likely had a lot of differences within them — further research to stratify some of these information source categories to better understand some of the specific associations is needed.”

The study, “Trends and predictors of COVID-19 information sources and their relationship with knowledge and beliefs related to the pandemic: a nationwide crosssectional study“, was authored by Shahmir H. Ali, Joshua Foreman, Yesim Tozan, Ariadna Capasso, Abbey M. Jones, and Ralph J. DiClemente.



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