As the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to rise, social media has created two user camps. Social sciences expert, Rīga Stradiņš University professor Anda Rožukalne is conducting a study on believers and non-believers in COVID-19 in Latvia.
One group of social media users rises against masks, the other is shocked that there are a huge number of people who do not believe in the existence of the virus, do not wear masks and ask others not to comply with the rules.
The study isn’t over yet. It is also planned to collect data on those who believe in misleading information, analyze beliefs, motivations, behavior. Currently, public survey data and some explanations are available.
When asked about various statements related to COVID-19, it appears that the strangest versions are not popular, 38% of respondents do not believe in any of the proposed statements, 30% think that the chaos created by COVID-19 is beneficial for politicians, while one in six (17%) believe that “COVID-19 is like influenza and hundreds of other viruses, it is not worth so much attention and limits” (see Table No. 1). There could be people among these respondents who don’t pay attention to the restrictions.
Table No. 1. Please indicate which of these statements on COVID-19 you think are reliable. N = 1013.
When assessing the responses to popular statements about COVID-19 (table No. 2), it can be observed that a third (33%) agree with disinformation distributed by a Latvian politician and think that statistics on deaths caused by the virus are misleading. 15% agree that the aim of the COVID-19 measures is control.
Table No. 2. Please note which of the comments made in society and on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken to prevent it you agree with. N = 1013.
Can it really be so that the COVID-19 denying population is the minority? If every day in every shop, every public transport vehicle and elsewhere we see people not wearing masks and not observing distance, that data seems unlikely. The sense of outrage is magnified by the experience published in social media, when there are sharp conflicts about wearing masks and failing to comply with other regulations. In such a situation, it is worth distinguishing between the perception of such information and its effects.
The study looked at how the use of information and susceptibility to disinformation can be attributed to a sense of vulnerability, so five groups of respondents have been identified, depending on the assessment of the risk of the disease and the self-assessment of the state of health. In response to the question of how high the risk of COVID-19 is, 46% of respondents consider it as low but realistic, 22% as medium-high and realistic. 14% of respondents think that the risk of their illness is low and almost unrealistic, 9% think it is high and realistic, 3% – as very high and very real.
Those who assess their health state as poor or very poor have more often indicated that the risk is higher. In other groups, socio-demographic features do not play a major role, except in a group of respondents (14%) who value infection risk as low and almost unrealistic: those were most often males aged 25 to 44, people with basic education, basic job workers, also respondents who do not speak Latvian in the family.
Excitement and increasing the sense of threat, with rapidly increasing numbers of sick and infected in Latvia, could be one of the reasons why the denial of COVID-19 is being taken apprehensively, paying attention to anyone who can publicly question the seriousness of the virus. The other reason could be the so-called false consensus effect, most studied in connection with populist communication.
Various studies have shown that individuals belonging to a minority very quickly overestimate the similarity of their views to the majority. This could be typical of those who regard COVID-19 as not serious, while those who feel very apprehensive about the situation may seem to have a very large group of opposing beliefs. The effect of false consensus shows that the distortion of perceptions of similar thinking has a functional value because it helps those in the minority to feel that they are right that such a view is normal. This effect explains that less popular attitudes and beliefs are reinforced by processes in which others express support or share the views of minority representatives in the social media environment.
The data show that, overall, a small proportion of respondents share messages related to disinformation. Although the majority of respondents assess the information and their risk of getting sick realistically, a minority group that does not believe in the need for restrictions is large enough for the majority to take it seriously.