Half of UK adults exposed to false claims about coronavirus

09 April 2020

Almost half of UK online adults came across false or misleading information about coronavirus (Covid-19) in the last week, Ofcom has found.

Ofcom is conducting weekly research to help understand how people are receiving and acting on information during the current pandemic.[1]

Our first results from week one of the ‘lockdown’ show that the most common piece of false information around coronavirus is the claim that drinking more water can flush out the infection (seen by 35% of online adults). That is followed by claims that it can be alleviated by gargling with saltwater, or avoiding cold food and drink – both pieces of misinformation seen by nearly a quarter (24%) of online adults.[2]

Among people who have been exposed to falsehoods about the virus, two thirds (66%) are seeing it every day. Ofcom’s research also shows that:

  • Most people (55%) are ignoring false claims about coronavirus. Fifteen per cent are using fact-checking tips from the media, such as the BBC’s website, while a similar proportion (13%) are double-checking with friends and family. One in 14 people are forwarding on false or misleading information about the virus.
  • Many people (40%) are finding it hard to know what is true or false about the virus. This rises to more than half (52%) of 18-24 year-olds.
  • Younger people are following official advice less closely. Virtually all people who took part in the survey said they are closely following the official advice to practice social distancing (98%); only go outside for essential reasons (97%); and wash their hands regularly (96%). However, only 65% of people said they were following handwashing advice very closely, and this falls to 43% among 18-24s.

Some common false claims about the coroanvirus include 'Drinking more water can flush out the infection' (seen by 35% of adults online) and 'It can be treated by avoiding cold food and drink' (seen by 24% of adults online).

Getting news about the pandemic

Almost all online adults (99%) are getting news and information about coronavirus at least once a day, while one in four (24%) are doing so 20 or more times each day. But conversely, more than one in five (22%) said they are trying to avoid news about the pandemic.

People are most likely to turn to the BBC’s TV, radio and online services for the latest news on the pandemic (82%), followed by other broadcasters (56%); official sources such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), NHS and the Government (52%); social media (49%); newspapers (43%); and family and friends (42%). Only 15% used closed messaging groups to get information, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

People are relying heavily on broadcast television to keep up-to-date with news about coronavirus. Average daily news viewing across all channels was up by 92% in March 2020 compared to March 2019. Both BBC News and Sky News have also seen their viewing more than double year-on-year. The Prime Minister’s Statement, which aired on 23 March, is the most-watched programme of 2020 so far; an average of 28 million viewers tuned in across the six channels it was shown on.[3]

BBC services are generally the most used sources of news and information about the coronavirus.

Trusted sources

Public officials are the most trusted sources of news about coronavirus. Of those that use them, at least nine in 10 people trust information provided by the NHS (95%), the WHO (94%), their local health services (91%) official scientists (90%), and the Government (89%).

Traditional broadcasters are also highly trusted: 83% of people trust coverage on BBC TV and Channel 4, followed by ITV (82%) and Sky (75%). Social media and closed messaging groups were the least trusted sources of news about the pandemic (21% and 26% respectively).

Cutting through the Covid-19 confusion

Access to accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and information has never been more important. So, with the support of our Making Sense of Media Panel and Network, Ofcom has collected a set of resources to provide people with useful tools to navigate news and information about Covid-19.

Many of these focus on debunking common misconceptions or harmful claims about the coronavirus. But there are also useful tips on how to seek out reliable content; how to tell fact from fiction; and how to find out who is behind particular claims.

We have also included a section for families, to help parents support their children’s critical understanding during this time.

Yih-Choung Teh, Ofcom’s Group Director for Strategy and Research, said: “People are turning to public authorities and traditional broadcasters for trusted information about Covid-19, and the vast majority say they’re closely following official advice.

“With so much false information circulating online, it’s never been more important that people can cut through the confusion and find accurate, trustworthy and credible sources of news and advice.”

NOTES TO EDITORS

  1. Forty-six per cent of UK online adults came across false or misleading information about coronavirus (Covid-19) in the last week. This figure increases to 58% among 18-24 year olds. Ofcom is surveying 2,000 UK online adults each week. The panel is weighted to ensure that the findings are representative of the views and habits of the UK online population; however, they do not reflect those of the 13% who are not online. Fieldwork for this first survey took place between 27-29 March 2020, and asked people about their habits and attitudes of the previous seven days. This period coincided with the ‘stay at home’ measures announced by the Prime Minister on Monday 23rd March, and so week one of our survey corresponds to week one of the UK ‘lockdown’.
  2. Since this initial ‘week one’ wave of the research was conducted, false and unsubstantiated claims linking the cause of Covid-19 to 5G technology have been circulating online. We will capture people’s exposure to these false claims in future waves of the research. A recent Ofcom investigation found that Uckfield FM aired potentially harmful views about the causes and origins of Covid-19, which were not sufficiently challenged. These statements had the potential to undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information. Given these serious failings, we concluded that Uckfield FM did not provide adequate protection for listeners from the potentially harmful material in this programme.
  3. Ofcom analysis of BARB data.