If the media is anything to go by, you’d think people who believe coronavirus myths are white, middle-aged women called Karen.
But our new study shows a different picture. We found men and people aged 18-25 are more likely to believe COVID-19 myths. We also found an increase among people from a non-English speaking background.
While we’ve heard recently about the importance of public health messages reaching people whose first language isn’t English, we’ve heard less about reaching young men.
Sydney Health Literacy Lab has been running a national COVID-19 survey of more than 1,000 social media users each month since Australia’s first lockdown.
A few weeks in, our initial survey showed younger people and men were more likely to think the benefit of herd immunity was covered up, and the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated.
People who agreed with such statements were less likely to want to receive a future COVID-19 vaccine.
In June, after restrictions eased, we asked social media users about more specific myths. We found:
We need more targeted research with young Australians, and men in particular, about why some of them believe these myths and what might change their mind.
Although our research has yet to be formally peer-reviewed, it reflects what other researchers have found, both in Australia and internationally.
An Australian poll in May found similar patterns, in which men and younger people believed a range of myths more than other groups.
In the UK, younger people are more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19. American men are also more likely to agree with COVID-19 conspiracy theories than women.
We need to reach young people with health messaging for several reasons. In Australia, young people:
The Victorian and New South Wales premiers have appealed to young people to limit socialising.
But is this enough when young people are losing interest in COVID-19 news? How many 20-year-old men follow Daniel Andrews on Twitter, or watch Gladys Berejiklian on television?
We need to involve young people in the design of COVID-19 messages to get the delivery right, if we are to convince them to socialise less and follow prevention advice. We need to include them rather than blame them.
We can do this by testing our communications on young people or running consumer focus groups before releasing them to the public. We can include young people on public health communications teams.
We can also borrow strategies from marketing. For example, we know how tobacco companies use social media to effectively target young people. Paying popular influencers on platforms such as TikTok to promote reliable information is one option.
We can target specific communities to reach young men who might not access mainstream media, for instance, gamers who have many followers on YouTube.
We also know humour can be more effective than serious messages to counteract science myths.
There are social media campaigns happening right now to address COVID-19, which might reach more young men than traditional public health methods.
NSW Health has recently started a campaign #Itest4NSW encouraging young people to upload videos to social media in support of COVID-19 testing.
The United Nations is running the global Verified campaign involving an army of volunteers to help spread more reliable information on social media. This may be a way to reach private groups on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, where misinformation spreads under the radar.
Telstra is using Australian comedian Mark Humphries to address 5G myths in a satirical way (although this would probably have more credibility if it didn’t come from a vested interest).
Finally, tech companies like Facebook are partnering with health organisations to flag misleading content and prioritise more reliable information. But this is just a start to address the huge problem of misinformation in health.
We can’t expect young men to access reliable COVID-19 messages from people they don’t know, through media they don’t use. To reach them, we need to build new partnerships with the influencers they trust and the social media companies that control their information.
It’s time to change our approach to public health communication, to counteract misinformation and ensure all communities can access, understand and act on reliable COVID-19 prevention advice.
This article was first published on The Conversation and written by Dr Carissa Bonner, Dr Brooke Nickel, and Dr Kristen Pickles from the Faculy of Medicine and Health.