Misinformation: A Cause for Global Concern


Ella Douglas-Durham, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Misinformation, which refers to false or misleading information, has proliferated in recent years and become an increasing cause for global concern. Misinformation can have several negative impacts including undermining trust in institutions, shaping policy preferences and voting behavior, and influencing health behaviors and intentions. Existing research has identified several factors associated with belief in misinformation, including conservative media use, anti-intellectualism (defined as a strong distrust of experts and intellectuals), and conspiratorial thinking (defined as an underlying predisposition toward seeing conspiracies). Using panel survey data from the 2020 American National Election Studies (ANES) Time Series Study, we assessed whether conservative media use, anti-intellectualism, and conspiratorial thinking are associated with belief in two different pieces of health misinformation, and whether their associations vary across these pieces of health misinformation. The two pieces of health misinformation included in this study were (1) that childhood vaccines cause autism and (2) that hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19. The ANES is a panel study consisting of two waves of data – pre-election and post-election – collected every four years during presidential election years. The 2020 ANES included items measuring use of several television programs, radio programs, and websites (used to measure media use), anti-intellectualism, conspiratorial thinking, and health misinformation. We classified each television program, radio program, and website as conservative, liberal, or centrist, based on existing classifications that are commonly used to categorize media in the US.

We found that anti-intellectualism and conspiratorial thinking were positively associated with belief in both pieces of misinformation. The use of conservative media was positively associated with belief that hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19, but not with belief that childhood vaccines cause autism. Our study underscores that the factors associated with belief in health misinformation can vary across types of misinformation and may depend on the context in which that misinformation exists. For example, at the time of data collection, hydroxychloroquine was being widely covered in the news given its relevance to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, whereas the vaccine/autism link was not. Additionally, hydroxychloroquine, which was promoted by then President Donald Trump, has been more politicized than the vaccine/autism link. Lastly, despite being a persistent myth, the vaccine/autism link has been refuted for several years, whereas the scientific consensus that hydroxychloroquine was not a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19 was more recently established. These findings indicate that the association of conservative media use with belief in health misinformation may depend on several factors including salience, politicization, and how recently scientific consensus was established.

The ANES is a rich, publicly available data source measuring trends in public opinion and politics and is an excellent resource for survey research. The 2024 ANES will be fielded later this year.