Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Coronavirus misinformation warning as half of Britain says it has been exposed to “fake news”

  • IPPR/Savanta ComRes poll finds that 48 per cent of people say they’ve seen fake news about Covid-19 while online
  • Most want the government to publicise more about other health dangers through texts and TV ads
  • Major gaps in public health knowledge revealed, with one third believing, or unsure about whether, vaccines are linked to autism

A new report from the progressive think tank IPPR today reveals wide gaps in the public’s knowledge on key public health issues, raising concerns about the effectiveness of health education and the risk of disinformation amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Misinformation about the coronavirus could cause unnecessary panic, encourage bad health choices and put lives at risk, according to the authors. Researchers warn that misinformation typically generates around specific health threats, from scaremongering over the spread of infectious diseases to promoting eating disorders.

The report reveals how much the rise of the internet and social media has changed the way people seek information about their health, leading IPPR to call for a new approach to public health for the digital information age.

Separate IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls conducted before and after the Covid-19 crisis each interviewed representative samples of more than 2,000 British adults about their access to health information and found:

  • Half (48 per cent) said they had seen or been sent what they consider ‘fake news’ about Covid-19 online, since the outbreak of the crisis
  • Before the Covid crisis the internet was the first point of call for health information and advice for most people, with 61 per cent going online to check symptoms or self-diagnose. Despite this, just five per cent of respondents listed the internet as their most trusted source.
  • Three quarters (75 per cent) listed the NHS website as their most trusted online source for health information or advice, whilst social media and tabloid media outlets were ranked as least likely to be considered trustworthy. 

The results suggest that whilst the majority of people are using the internet to access health information, many may still be aware of its limitations.

However, researchers warn that many will find it difficult to sift the vast amount of online information, leaving people repeatedly exposed to contradictory or even false statements.

The IPPR/Savanta ComRes polls also asked questions to test public understanding of key health issues. This revealed gaps in key areas of public health knowledge and a desire for better information, including:

  • Vaccines: Of those polled, 6 per cent agreed with the false claim that vaccines can cause autism and a further 32 per cent were unsure – meaning that over a third of the public are misinformed or unsure about the health benefits of vaccines, the most important preventative treatment for many kinds of disease.
  • Cancer: Less than half (47 per cent) of the public associate obesity with cancer, despite it being the second biggest preventable cause of cancer across the UK.
  • Antibiotics: Information campaigns around the threat of antibiotic resistance appear to have been more effective – 78 per cent agreed that antibiotics were being overused in the UK.
  • Public desire for direct government communication on public health threats. Some 78 per cent say they would support continued Government use of television adverts to communicate with them about other public health concerns when the Covid-19 crisis is over and 64 per cent say the same for text messages

Researchers link the high level of misunderstanding about vaccines to the rise of the anti-vaccination campaign, which primarily exists online. The report warns that people increasingly rely on social media platforms and forums for news, which risks exposing them to harmful ‘fake news’ on major health issues.

In the context of the coronavirus outbreak this is particularly troubling, the report says, as it demonstrates how easily disinformation can lead to major misunderstandings about public and personal health.

The future of Public Health Education

The report warns that while technology and the internet have transformed how people manage and understand their health, it has also widened health inequalities and created conditions for falsehoods to thrive.

The internet and new technology should be harnessed to improve public health education, IPPR says, alongside other measures. IPPR calls on government to:

  • Forge an NHS partnership with social media firms – the UK’s most trusted source of health information, the NHS, should partner with platforms like Twitter and Facebook to create tailored public health messages and address disinformation.
  • Develop a new NHS app – the health service should develop an app with new features that allow users to actively track and support healthy behavior, expanding access to the abilities of expensive high-end health apps to all.
  • Invest in schools – by boosting schools’ capacity to deliver health education as a core part of Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) and by providing one nurse per 600 school students to promote better health. The 11,500 additional nurses could be delivered for £445 million a year.
  • Deliver ‘Universal Personalised Care’ – The government must advance its plans to roll out personal care plans for all people with newly diagnosed conditions or exhibiting risky behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.

Dean Hochlaf, IPPR Researcher and lead author of the report, said:

“Covid-19 has reminded us that when it comes to health, knowledge is power. The internet has been a powerful tool in communicating helpful NHS advice on how to halt the spread of this terrible disease, but misinformation remains a constant menace online that endangers lives.

“Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are a common side effect of all public health issues and crises. It’s therefore paramount that the government continues to play an active role in combatting misinformation, even after the pandemic.

“Official health information is always beneficial, so the government should step up its efforts to ensure that the public is always up to date and well informed about any health threats we may face.”

Harry Quilter-Pinner, Head of IPPR’s Better Health and Care Programme, said:

“Covid-19 has demonstrated once again that fake news is a growing risk to the publics’ health. But it has also shown that the government can play a constructive role in ensuring people have the right information to make the best decisions for their health.

“Our polling shows that going forward the public want government to take a more active role in driving better health after Covid-19. This must include providing better health education, particularly in schools, and working with platforms like Twitter and Facebook to ensure people are getting the information they need to stay healthy.”

ENDS

CONTACT

Robin Harvey, Digital and Media Officer: [email protected]

David Wastell, Head of News and Communications: [email protected]

Harry Quilter-Pinner and Dean Hochlaf are available for comment and interview

NOTES TO EDITORS

  1. The IPPR paper, Prevention in the Age of Information: Public education for public health by Dean Hochlaf and Harry Quilter-Pinner, is available to download at: http://www.ippr.org/research/publications/prevention-in-the-age-of-information
  2. Advance copies of the report are available under embargo on request
  3. Two polls were commissioned by IPPR and conducted by Savanta ComRes. The first poll, asking questions on trust in various health information sources was carried out between November 22-24, 2019 with a representative sample of 2,008 British adults (in England, Scotland and Wales). The second, asking Covid-19 related questions, was carried out between April 24-27, 2020 asking a representative sample of 2,058 British adults. Data tables can be found here.
  4. This report is published as a contribution to the work of the IPPR Better Health and Care Programme. https://www.ippr.org/better-health-and-care/
  5. Previous IPPR publications on public health and prevention include Ending the Blame Game https://www.ippr.org/research/publications/ending-the-blame-game and Hitting the Poorest Worst https://www.ippr.org/blog/public-health-cuts
  6. IPPR is the UK’s pre-eminent progressive think tank. With more than 40 staff in offices in London, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, IPPR is Britain’s only national think tank with a truly national presence. www.ippr.org