Young people most likely to believe misinformation about the pandemic

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It is not just your uncle on Facebook anymore: a new study finds that an epidemic of misinformation is spreading online among an increasingly younger population.

A survey of more than 21,000 Americans found that people under the age of 25 were most likely to believe a series of false claims about the coronavirus.

“Across the 11 false claims, we find a clear pattern: the older the age group, the lower the average level of belief in false claims,” said the report, by researchers at Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern and Northwestern Universities.

The findings run counter to previous studies showing that older adults are most likely to believe misinformation spreading online.

The false statements included “only people older than 60 are at risk for coronavirus,” “humans originally got coronavirus by eating bats,” and “there is a cure for coronavirus that is being withheld from the public.”

These false stories were mostly spread through WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and YouTube.

“Those seem to be the information sources,” said Matthew Baum, one of the study’s authors and a professor of Global Communications and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. “People that rely, disproportionately, on those sources are most likely to believe these stories to be true. And frankly, most of these stories are primarily circulated online so it’s not surprising.”

While misinformation is not a new phenomenon, social media allows it to spread much more quickly than it has in the past and can create echo chambers where false assertions go unchallenged.

“The key to the way misinformation spreads is not so much universal acceptance across the public, it’s in these niches,” said Baum.

Misinformation can carry consequences for everyone. Researchers found that people who believed the false claims were also likely to say they do not follow public health guidelines and will not get a vaccine for the virus when it becomes available.