Duke Researchers Find Strong Association with Public Knowledge, Trust in Sources, and the Understanding of COVID-19

DURHAM, NC – New research suggests that the success of behavioral interventions and policies in reducing the impact of COVID-19 depends on how well individuals are informed about ways the infection spreads and steps that should be taken to reduce the disease’s impact.

Conducted by a team including Dr. Ilona Fridman from the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy and Dr. Christy Zigler from Duke University’s Department of Population Health Sciences, the study results were published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR) Public Health and Surveillance which is also being shared with the World Health Organization (WHO).

Researchers investigated the association between the public’s knowledge of COVID-19, adherence to social distancing, and the public’s trust in government information sources (e.g., the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), media sources (e.g., FOX News and CNN), and social networks (e.g., Facebook and Twitter).

The authors concluded that government information sources were the most trusted among the public but observed variations in trust by age and gender, with white and older populations having higher trust in government sources and non-white and younger populations having higher trust in media sources and social networks. They also found that trust in government sources correlated with accurate knowledge about COVID-19 and adherence to social distancing. Conversely, trust in media sources was negatively associated with knowledge about COVID-19, and trust in social media was negatively associated with knowledge about COVID-19 and social distancing.

“In a state of emergency, individual behavior depends on how well-informed people are about both risks and risk-reducing actions,” states Dr. Fridman. “Our work shows that not only message content matters but also that selection of sources for information dissemination could have a critical impact on public knowledge.”

Notably, when disseminating urgent health information, the authors recommend that officials use multiple sources for providing information to ensure that diverse populations have timely access to accurate knowledge, particularly during pandemics. Policymakers should also monitor carefully the quality of information disseminated through media sources and social networks.

 “When inaccurate knowledge might contribute to public mortality, private sources and social media should have policies to control information quality,” said Dr. Fridman. “Certain strategies are already applied, such as adding fact-checking links and accuracy reminders or disrupting automated accounts (bots) that spread misinformation. However, these strategies are neither normalized nor systematically implemented.”