Governments and social media companies have not done enough to combat ‘fake news’ in recent months, according to a new study carried out by University College Dublin (UCD) and University College Cork (UCC). The report, ‘Can fake news really change behaviour?’, concluded that the efforts of Government warnings prove ‘ineffective’ in battling Covid-19 related ‘fake news.’

The study, published on July 24th, was carried out by Ciara Greene, associate professor in UCD’s School of Psychology, alongside UCC’s Gillian Murphy and has been called ‘the first of its kind’. It examined public responses to ‘fake news’ in relation to Covid-19 stories and the psychological impact of misinformation warnings.

The study recruited 3746 sample participants through an article on The between the 23rd of May and 5th of June 2020 and exposed them to both real and fake stories about Covid-19. Participants were also divided into four groups, only some of which were shown different public health warnings about misinformation. The study found that there were ‘no effects of providing a general warning about the dangers of online misinformation on response to the fake stories’

However, the report also suggests that the ‘behavioural effects’ of one-off fake news exposure may be weaker than previously believed. Participants were real news headlines such as ‘A new study from Trinity College Dublin revealed that vitamin D is likely to reduce serious coronavirus complications. The researchers urged the government to advise Irish citizens to take daily vitamin D supplements.” They were also exposed to ‘fake’ stories of a leaked pharmaceutical report claiming complications with a vaccine as well as the contact tracing app having data privacy concerns. 

The study reported ‘only very small effects’ on intentions to engage in the behaviours targeted by the stories. Only a small number of participants were less willing to download the tracing app. The reports had no effect on those intending to get vaccinated. 

The study also took similar data and looked into the individual difference in ‘false memories’ of certain news stories. The study found that more anxious people or those who had high levels of media engagement were biased towards ‘remembering’ stories compared to more critical thinkers. It found that participants who were more objectively better informed about Covid-19 had less ‘false memories’.

The report concluded by calling for more empirical research on the real-world consequences of fake news.

Angelina Pierce – Reporter