Knowledge about the COVID-19 pandemic increased during the crisis, but not because of media exposure

Published on April 21, 2022 – The acquisition of accurate knowledge on COVID-19 is not a given. Mis- and disinformation abound, while experts do not always agree and factual claims are disputed or updated regularly. Despite this context, recent survey research among a representative sample in the Netherlands indicates that peoples’ estimates on the severity of the crisis improved as the crisis progressed. However, exposure to both traditional and online news sources had a negative effect on the accuracy of factual knowledge. These findings suggest that (news)media do not always have a positive role in informing the public in crisis times. 

In recent panel-research, ASCoR-researchers Alyt Damstra and Michael Hameleers found that as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, estimates on the number of casualties and recoveries improved considerably. During the first stages of the pandemic there was a lot of uncertainty about these statistics, whereas the registration of positive cases and other information became more accurate and clearer at later stages. This is reflected in the impact of knowledge acquisition over time. An unexpected finding was that more exposure to news can have a negative impact on knowledge. However, this can be explained when we take into account the information context. Especially during the first stages of the pandemic, a lot of misinformation (unintentionally false information) and disinformation (intentionally deceptive information) were disseminated. Such false information included inaccurate information on the number of positive cases, casualties and recoveries. More exposure to (online) information could therefore, especially in the content of uncertainty at the start of the pandemic, result in a negative impact on knowledge.

The most important conclusion of this study is that access to more information in times of crisis and the unprecedented impact of mis- and disinformation does not guarantee a better-informed public. More information exposure can even deceive. It is therefore crucial that, especially during the highest uncertainty at the start of a crisis, information is transparent and accurate, whereas disinformation is combated as much as possible.

This study has been published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research and can be found here. This study was funded by the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), the Digital Communication Methods Lab, and the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. Data collection was coordinated by Bert Bakker, Amber van der Wal and Rens Vliegenthart. Also see this link for details on data collection.