Misinformation Vulnerabilities During Infectious Disease Outbreaks

  • Vijaykumar, Santosh (Principal Investigator)
  • Pagliari, Claudia (Principal Investigator)
  • Jin, Yan (Principal Investigator)

Project Details


This project set out to examine the way in which WhatsApp is being used as a ‘vector’ for the spread of misinformation about Infectious Disease Outbreaks. It follows a previous review by the authors which charted the problem and some of the harms that have come from it in different parts of the world, including poisoning from bogus treatments and attacks on health workers and minorities (Vijaykumar, Pagliari, Jin, 2019)
A key aim of this study, was to understand whether older adults are more vulnerable to 'forwarding' misinformation they receive via WhatsApp, as had previously been speculated in the literature, as a means of helping to inform interventions to address this problem.
The planned study location was Bangalore (Bengaluru), India, which had recently grappled with the outbreaks of Nipah and H1N1. In response to the global pandemic, the focus was shifted to COVID-19, with a comparison of older and younger adults in Brazil and the UK. This resulted in a series of complimentary sub-studies, which have been published together in a 'visual research report' and in a series of journal articles (ongoing)

Layman's description

This collection of studies, undertaken in Brazil and the UK, explored the factors which contribute to the 'forwarding' of false information on WhatsApp during infectious disease outbreaks. It looked at the role of age, gender, message accuracy level and the effect of corrective information. While the researchers set out to do their study in India, the unexpected global pandemic led to a change of focus, to COVID-19 in Brazil and India.

Key findings

Contrary to previous research, we found that older adults were less, rather than more likely to share false WhatsApp messages about Covid19 than younger adults.
Younger adults were less likely than older adults to actively 'correct' someone who had circulated false information. Likewise, women were less likely to actively correct others.
All groups were able to detect the difference between false and accurate information but 'partially true' information was more problematic.
Presenting people with factual information from the World Health Organisation was able to counteract false beliefs caused by previous misinformation.
People engaged in a one or two-step process of evaluating messages before forwarding them, including older adults. They were less likely to share information they were unsure of with members of their family than with strangers.
These results call for further research to understand the effect of demographic factors, and social/group dynamics on trust and information sharing. They also suggest design adaptations that may help to reduce the spread of misinformation on social media platforms like WhatsApp.
Effective start/end date19/03/2121/03/21


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