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Spread of virus fake news 'can lead to public breaking lockdown'


Social media can ‘overload’. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Social media can ‘overload’. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Social media can ‘overload’. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

The spread of misinformation on social media can result in the public breaking lockdown, a study has found.

An NUI Galway study also found that while social media networks can provide information on the crisis, once users are "overloaded" with social media content, they are more likely to believe unverified information.

Misinformation is defined as false information which is intended to deceive the public, and the study was carried out by the JE Cairnes School of Business and Economics at NUI Galway.

"We have already seen the impact misinformation spreading through social media can have in political elections," said co-author of the study Dr Eoin Whelan, senior lecturer in Business Information Systems at the business school.

"Now, we are witnessing its harmful effects on public health in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Our study suggests when people become overloaded with social media content, they are not only more likely to believe unverified Covid-19 information, but will further contribute to the problem by spreading the misinformation on to others."


The study also examines 'cyberchondria', which is the unfounded concern around common symptoms based on online searches of those symptoms.

The data shows that those who are more susceptible to Covid-19 spend more time searching online for symptoms, which increases their stress and anxiety.

Dr Whelan said that social media companies can play a part in curbing misinformation by restricting the amount of Covid-19 information.

"Additionally, health organisations can use our findings to educate social media users to consume content in a sustainable manner and thus avoid these problems," he said.

"WhatsApp has already introduced restrictions on the forwarding of messages containing Covid-19-related information, while Google directs people searching for Covid-19 related information to trusted websites."

The study was authored by Dr Whelan with Samuli Laato and Najmul Islam of the University of Turku in Finland and is published in the European Journal of Information Systems.