Most people believe that they are well informed, yet many of them distrust news sources. This is one of the results of a study by Kantar (Emnid), commissioned by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.
At first glance, this all looks quite reassuring: 95 % of citizens in six countries on four different continents believe they are either "very well" or "well" informed about the coronavirus pandemic. Kantar interviewed more than 7000 people from different segments of society in seven countries: Germany, the U.S., India, Jordan, Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa. Across these countries, the subjective feeling of being well-informed is very high – only in Jordan the figure is slightly below 90%. Are the debates about fake news much ado about nothing?
Quite the contrary! Almost half of all respondents (44 %) believe that their main sources of information - television, radio and newspapers - are concealing facts about the coronavirus due to pressure from their respective governments. In Germany, more than a third (34 %) of respondents believe this to be true, in the U.S. it is almost half (47 %) and in Mexico and South Africa 56 %, hence more than half of the people. In other words: a clear vote of „no confidence“ in the mainstream media. This, however, has not – yet? - given rise to doubt one’s own level of being informed. Note that the fact that respondents still feel well-informed, despite their distrust in mainstream media, cannot be explained by their usage of other news sources: the survey also shows that, compared to television, social media is used far less as a source of information by younger people, and even less so by older people. This even applies to countries like Germany and the U.S., where the internet is accessible virtually everywhere.
When compared to their actual level of knowledge about the coronavirus, the study reveals that people's self-assessment of being informed is far too optimistic. More than half of them admit that they find it difficult to distinguish between false reports and truthful ones. Although two thirds of them consider the media coverage to be balanced – except for the U.S. where the figure is less than 46 % (!) – the percentage of respondents who believe in widespread yet obviously wrong myths surrounding the coronavirus is surprisingly high: 47 % share the belief that the virus was bred in a Chinese laboratory and 38 % (even though only 13 % in Germany) think that Covid-19 is a Chinese biological weapon. There are also wild assumptions about Bill Gates that are linked to the activities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in the global health sector. Half of all respondents believe that Bill Gates is calling for a compulsory vaccination of all people, 39 % think Gates is more powerful than their own government and 20 % agree with the statement that Bill Gates has bought the World Health Organization (WHO). It is noteworthy that Germans are more resistant to myths than the respondents in the other countries; however, also in Germany there is a significant minority that believes in these conspiracy theories.
In conclusion, we may call it a „fake news trap“ that the coronavirus has exposed. The unexpected, sudden appearance of a pandemic has deeply unsettled people. Subjectively, they still consider themselves as „well informed“, but this is mostly a delusion - and many people secretely suspect this too. The coronavirus is therefore an ideal breeding ground for myths and absurd theories. And maybe stil worse: the virus makes people look for scapegoats.
All this shows one thing: The global fight against fake news is of great importance. It needs to be given a much higher priority than it has right now. From a liberal perspective, this is not about suppressing controversial views. It is about fostering critical thinking worldwide through diligent research and factual reporting. If we want to promote human progress, we need facts and empirical research instead of myths and conspiracy theories.
This article was first published by Volksstimme on 20.07.2020.