When the coronavirus first swept the globe more than two years ago it fuelled an insatiable thirst for information from a concerned public.
What was this emerging threat? Where did it come from and how could it be overcome? Demand for answers surged as infection rates and the global death toll continued to rise.
But where was reliable information to be found? Inevitably, many turned to social media and Facebook in particular.
Now, a UAE study suggests that using social media platforms when concern about the pandemic was at its height led not only to people being misinformed, but also to lower well-being.
Researchers from UAE University and other institutions found that, among people who got most of their information about the pandemic from social media, use of Facebook was associated with lower well-being. This was particularly the case for people who spent longer on the site.
“Using Facebook for extended periods to seek Covid-19 information and updates predicted lower well-being scores,” the researchers wrote in Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare.
While reports on established news websites could typically be trusted, the internet became a rumour mill where unreliable material proliferated. Social media sites such as Facebook were criticised heavily for allowing the spread of misinformation on, for example, Covid-19 vaccines.
Among the more bizarre claims circulated online were that eating bananas or gargling with saltwater could offer protection against the coronavirus.
Dr Iffat Elbarazi, joint first author of the study, said the team had initially believed that social media use in general may affect well-being adversely. Researchers were surprised, she said, that this was found only with Facebook.
“This could be due to Facebook use being more commonly shifted towards sharing information rather than personal use,” she said.
“On the other hand, other social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are utilised for more personal reasons.”
Reddit was not widely used among the nearly 1,000 people who took part in the study’s online survey, which may explain why no link between its use and well-being was found.
However, Dr Elbarazi said that, given the type of information shared on Reddit, she would not be surprised if it too was associated with lower well-being.
Healthcare workers affected
The new study was carried out by researchers from United Arab Emirates University, the University of Sharjah, Abu Dhabi University, the Medical University of Graz in Austria and a private company.
A total of 993 people – one fifth of them healthcare workers – were polled in June and July 2020, when pandemic concerns were high.
They were questioned about their social media use and, using a standard World Health Organisation survey, their well-being.
Whether social media has a positive or negative effect on well-being has been much discussed and researched. A 2020 study from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School found the platforms were helpful in terms of well-being only if they generated genuine social interaction.
These tended to be with relatives, close friends and “meaningful” social contacts but did not involve following influencers, brands or strangers.
“The average daily time spent using social media and messaging had a small positive effect on subsequent psychological well-being,” the Oxford academics said in a research brief outlining their findings.
Misinformation must be addressed
The Covid-19 crisis has shown, Dr Elbarazi said, the importance of people being able to obtain reliable information about new topics related to health.
As a result, societies should be prepared, she said, for future “infodemics”, when vast amounts of information, much of it unreliable, proliferates and spreads.
“We need better communication tools and training in communicating,” said Dr Elbarazi.
“I would advise authorities and authorised websites to mitigate the impact of unreliable information with correct evidence-based and scientific messages that will address the public’s questions and concerns.”
The public, too, have a responsibility to ensure they consume only reliable information, Dr Elbarazi said. They should avoid, she said, relying on social media for scientific or health-related information.
“There is a lot of misinformation and incomplete information out there,” she said.
“There is even the possibility of purposeful disinformation – wrong information circulated on purpose – so people should refrain from sharing health-related information unless validated by official local or international health organisations and authorities.
”Indeed, another recent study found that using social media for health-related information may, beyond its effects on well-being, have real-world effects on behaviour."
In a study published last month, researchers in Singapore found that “exposure to online misinformation reduced self-reported engagement in social distancing and increased misinformed behaviour”.
While Facebook has been criticised over false information, it has made efforts to reduce the spread of vaccine misinformation.
Research by scientists at George Washington University published at the beginning of this month found that a company policy, introduced before the coronavirus pandemic in March 2019, “moderately curtailed” the number of “likes” that anti-vaccine material on the site could attract.