Most Americans Have Been Duped by COVID Misinformation: Survey

Ken Terry

November 09, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Nearly eight in 10 US adults (78%) either believe or aren't sure about at least one of eight false statements about the COVID-19 pandemic or the COVID-19 vaccines, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey.

Unvaccinated adults and Republicans are among those most likely to hold these misconceptions, the nationally representative poll shows.

Nearly two-thirds of unvaccinated adults (64%) believe or are unsure about at least half of the eight false statements, compared with 19% of vaccinated adults. Forty-six percent of Republicans believe or are unsure about at least half of the statements, three times the share of Democrats in that category (14%). Independent voters were not factored into the survey results.

The topline results:

  • Sixty percent of adults say they've heard that the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths by counting deaths due to other factors and either believe it to be true (38%) or aren't sure if it's true (22%)

  • Four in 10 (39%) respondents say they've heard that pregnant women should not get the COVID-19 vaccine and believe it to be true (17%) or aren't sure if it's true (22%)

  • Three in 10 (31%) say they've heard that the vaccine has been shown to cause infertility and either believe it (8%) or aren't sure if it's true (23%)

  • Thirty-five percent of respondents say they've heard that the government is hiding deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine; 18% believe it, and 17% say they're not sure if it's true

Other statements attract less but substantial support:

  • Twenty-eight percent of respondents have heard that the antiparasitic drug ivermectin is a safe and effective treatment for COVID; 14% believe it, 14% are not sure if it's true

  • Twenty-four percent of Americans have heard that you can get COVID from the vaccine; 14% believe that to be true, while 10% are unsure

  • Twenty-four percent of respondents have heard that the vaccines contain microchips; 7% believe it, 17% say they've heard that but don't know if it's true

  • Twenty-one percent of Americans have heard claims that the vaccine can change DNA or don't know if it's true

Misinformation by News Source

The KFF report notes that "people's trusted news sources are correlated with their belief in COVID-19 misinformation."

At least a third of those who trust information from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and local and network TV news do not believe any of the eight false statements. Depending on their mix of these news sources, only 11%-16% of this group believe or are unsure about at least four of the eight false statements.

In contrast, 36% of people who trust Fox News, 37% of those who trust One America News, and 46% of those who trust Newsmax say they believe or are unsure about at least half of the eight false statements.

It's also notable that 44% of people who trust NPR, 48% of those who trust MSNBC, 50% of those who trust network news, and 49% of those who trust CNN believe or are unsure about one to three of the false statements.

While larger shares of people who trust COVID information from conservative news sources believe misinformation, according to KFF, the researchers state that the survey is not designed to explain those beliefs.

"Whether this is because people are exposed to misinformation from those news sources, or whether the types of people who choose those news sources are the same ones who are pre-disposed to believe certain types of misinformation for other reasons, is beyond the scope of the analysis," they write.

The poll results show the role partisanship plays in which networks are trusted. Democrats trust COVID-19 information from network (72%) and local (66%) television, CNN (65%), MSNBC (56%), and NPR (51%). Republicans' most trusted news sources for COVID-19 information are Fox News (49%), local (34%) and network (25%) news, and Newsmax (22%).

Few adults say they trust social-media sources for COVID-19 information, such as YouTube (13%), Facebook (9%), Twitter (6%), and Instagram (5%).

However, the researchers write that the groups influenced by information they see on those platforms may be larger than these percentages indicate, as previous KFF surveys have found that nearly as many adults get information about COVID-19 vaccines from social media as from cable, network, and local TV news.

Partisan COVID Mortality Gap

Wherever people get their news, misinformation that determines their attitudes about COVID-19 and the vaccines has likely had real-world consequences.

According to a recent New York Times article, a gap between the higher COVID death tolls in more Republican areas and lower death tolls in more Democratic areas of the country has developed in 2021 — with an association emerging in those regions between attitudes toward the COVID vaccines and the resulting willingness to be vaccinated.

In October, the Times reports, 25 out of every 100,000 residents of counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump in the last presidential election died from COVID. That's three times higher than the mortality rate in counties that strongly supported Joe Biden (7.8 per 100,000).

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