By Gita Smith
Who is more likely to be informed or misinformed during an epidemic? A study by Georgia Tech School of Economics Assistant Professor Robert Gonzalez examined the spread of information during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. Whereas one might think that well-to-do citizens get the facts and poor or rural populations follow rumors and misinformation, sociodemographic standing is not always a good predictor. When that epidemic unfolded, denials, conspiracy theories, and false rumors were common and disrupted public health interventions. A similar pattern played out during COVID-19 in many countries, including the USA. Elisa M. Maffioli together with Gonzalez published their findings in March of 2022 in PLOS Global Public Health.
They wrote, “Misinformed individuals are not any poorer, older, less educated, more economically distressed, more rural, or ethnically different than individuals who are informed. However, they are more likely to report high levels of distrust, especially towards governmental institutions.”
Gonzalez and Maffioli highlight that government trust might play the most important role in reducing misinformation during epidemics. Their study is important because health misinformation is considered a major threat to global public health and can worsen infectious disease outbreaks. Curbing the spread of infectious diseases requires effective information dissemination strategies. A key objective of these strategies is to mitigate the spread of misinformation, especially during outbreaks of novel diseases such as the Ebola epidemics in West Africa and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Gonzalez reports, “By conducting a novel individual-level survey shortly after the end of the epidemic, we recorded respondents’ beliefs about the origin of the outbreak. We asked about 2,200 respondents across the country who they thought was responsible for bringing Ebola to Liberia when the virus first appeared. In our data 44% of respondents were informed, 26% of the respondents answered they did not know the origin of the epidemic while 30% reported that political (the government) or supernatural forces (God, witchcraft) were responsible for the epidemic.
Survey subjects were contacted by Random-Digit Dialing (RDD) and a short Interactive Voice Response (IVR) survey. Consistent differences arise along two dimensions: misinformed individuals are significantly more likely to report high levels of distrust, and less likely to own a radio. [Health educators, including those from the CDC, went on radio talk shows during the Ebola epidemic to give advice and take questions.] Individuals with radio access were 7 percentage points less likely to be misinformed.
Gonzalez added to world understanding of what happened in several African countries where critical health information might have mitigated the spread of severe illness.
"Are Socio-demographic and Economic Characteristics Good Predictors of Misinformation During an Epidemic?" was published in PLOS Global Public Health in March 2022. Read it here: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgph.0000279, or check out more featured research from the School of Economics!