KU study finds populations vulnerable to public health crises are more likely to share misinformation

photo by: Lauren Fox

The entrance to Stauffer-Flint Hall, home to KU's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is pictured on Jan. 23, 2020.

A new study from researchers in KU’s School of Journalism has found that vulnerable populations — especially those with lower levels of education — are more likely to consume and share misinformation about the very crises that closely affect them.

The study, authored by two KU professors and two university graduate students, comes at a time when misinformation surrounding COVID-19 is beginning to appear more frequently as scientists race to find a vaccine or cure for the contagious respiratory disease.

Professors Hyunjin Seo and Hong Tien Vu, along with graduate students Matthew Blomberg and Darcey Altschwager, conducted the study by presenting a suspect health story with misinformation about vaccines to a group of lower-income, older African Americans — an especially vulnerable population with traditionally lower access to digital information streams.

The researchers then conducted surveys and interviews on how the group analyzed the information. One especially key finding was that when misinformation is related to a topic people are personally involved in, they are more likely to believe and share it.

Seo said in a news release announcing the study that its results showed the importance of not only information literacy in the digital age, but also the importance of continuing education for the country’s most vulnerable populations.

“We know income, education level and other factors are vital in how people assess information. Our study tried to capture the intersection of those factors,” she said.

Respondents in the study who had attended some form of higher-level education, in addition to computer courses, were more likely to recognize and question the source credibility in the article they were presented, the study found. They still weren’t as likely to question the accuracy of the information itself, however.

“For our respondents, assessments of content credibility, as opposed to source credibility, were far more challenging,” Seo said.

Finally, the researchers also found that the more closely people connected to the topic, the more likely they were to say they would share it on social media platforms — one of the most consistent and pervasive forms of misinformation cultivation.

Conducting the study on lower-income, African American individuals comes at a key point in a global health crisis that is affecting older and minority populations at a drastically increased level.

Though the rate has fallen, at one point during the COVID-19 pandemic, African American residents in Kansas were eight times more likely to die from the respiratory virus than white residents were. As of Wednesday, African Americans in Kansas were just over 5.5 times more likely to die from COVID-19.

“Our study found when people have low knowledge of a topic but feel highly involved with it, they are more likely to assess a false story on the topic as credible,” Seo said in the news release. “As a society, we need to think of ways to offer continuing education, especially for those who are vulnerable.”

The study will be published in a journal called New Media & Society, and has already begun to make waves in the journalism community. CNN briefly featured the study in its “Reliable Sources” media newsletter on Wednesday.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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