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Providing psychological research on the spread of COVID-19 misinformation

APA responded to a Department of Health and Human Services request for information on the impact of health misinformation throughout the pandemic.

Cite this
American Psychological Association. (2022, May 26). Providing psychological research on the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.

On May 2, 2022, APA filed a response to a request for information (RFI) from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of the Surgeon General on the impact and prevalence of health misinformation online during the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of false, inaccurate, and misleading information has been a challenge to government and individuals throughout the pandemic and there is evidence that it has undermined efforts to reduce infection rates.

APA’s response to the RFI focused on bringing forward the recent science on the presence and prevalence of misinformation. It discussed the psychology of why people believe misinformation, such as demographic factors and traits that are more vulnerable to misinformation. “Researchers have found that lower institutional trust, lower digital health literacy, and more rejection of official accounts are associated with stronger belief in COVID-19 misinformation,” the response notes. It also provided suggestions on what policymakers and the public can do to stop the spread of misinformation, such as warning people about specific possible misinformation and untrustworthy sources, prompting people to assess the validity of their information, and connecting with morality when correcting misinformation. While there is more research needed, it is an important step for HHS and the surgeon general’s office to say they want to be prepared to combat misinformation going forward. “To reach the broadest possible audience,” the response concludes, “public health authorities must work to build relationships with trusted, influential stakeholders and media companies in order to reach culturally and linguistically different groups.”

The RFI seeks to understand the broad impacts of misinformation and disinformation and makes a few key assumptions to guide responses, including:  

  • The definition of “health misinformation” for the purposes of this RFI is health information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time.
  • “Exposure” is defined as seeing content in newsfeeds, in search results, or algorithmically nominated content.
  • “Potential exposure” is defined as the exposure users would have had if they could see all the content that is eligible to appear in their newsfeeds.
  • Engagement includes the clicking or viewing of content, as well as reacting.
  • Sharing is the act of sharing a piece of pre-existing content within social media.
  • Technology platforms include the following: general search engines, content sharing platforms, social media platforms, e-commerce platforms, crowdsourced platforms, and instant messaging systems.

Read APA’s full comment online (PDF, 250KB).

For more information, contact Corbin Evans