MONTREAL -- Canadians who use social media instead of traditional news sites to stay up to date on COVID-19 are more likely to believe misconceptions about it, according to a new study by McGill University researchers.

The study shows these misconceptions drastically change the way people behave amid the pandemic; those getting their information from social media are less likely to follow public health guidelines like physical distancing. The opposite is true of those who turn to verified outlets for their news. 

“We thus draw a clear link from misinformation circulating on social media, notably Twitter, to behaviours and attitudes that potentially magnify the scale and lethality of COVID-19,” the study reads.

One of its authors, Aengus Bridgman, explains that the spreading of misinformation isn't new – in fact, it’s quite common around election season – but in the context of a pandemic, the consequences are catastrophic.

And while it might not be new, “I do think social media has accelerated it and makes people – particularly those who are not as media-savvy or as literate in online spaces – very vulnerable to misinformation in a way that they’ve never been before,” Bridgman said.

The type of misinformation the group looked at could be as simple as someone believing a personal post they read online, to content found on questionable websites via tweets.

The group combined social media analysis, news analysis and surveys to generate their findings. Data was collected from a set of 620,000 Canadian Twitter users and 19 prominent news sites, for a total of 2.25 million tweets and 8,857 news articles.

The group looked into debunked claims that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu; that Vitamin C or similar supplements can prevent catching the virus; that the virus spread to humans because someone ate a bat; and that it's all just a conspiracy. 

“In traditional media – not entirely – but most of the discussion around (COVID-19) was saying ‘this claim has been circulated, but is incorrect,’” Bridgman said. “You’re still talking about that piece of misinformation, but the rebuttal is side-by-side. And that wasn’t the case on social media.”

Social media websites lack public responsibility, Bridgman said, though Twitter has made an effort to alert readers when a tweet contains questionable information. But after combing through hundreds of thousands of tweets for the purpose of this study, he isn’t sure the system has the ability to address the magnitude of the problem.

“You simply cannot automate the detection of disinformation,” Bridgman said. “It is simply not possible; there is far too much creativity and room for interpretation and nuance…”

Bridgman says that while Canadians may think misinformation is less of a threat in Canada, particularly when measured up against our neighbours to the south, that simply isn’t the case.

“People who think ‘okay this is not really our problem,’ well, here’s the evidence saying ‘Well actually, it is,’” he said. “Continued vigilance and continued work is required… Families are often the tight unit where this type of correcting misinformation can really occur very well, and I know from personal experience and from many friends that particularly elderly parents or grandparents are very vulnerable to this sort of manipulation… So, take care of them.”