MOTIVATION (WHY WE DID THIS)
Health literacy is extremely important, especially during times of health crisis. In a study titled “Fear of COVID-19 Scale—Associations of Its Scores with Health Literacy and Health-Related Behaviors among Medical Students” it was determined that “health literacy showed a protective effect on fear” (Nguyen et al. 9). When people are well-informed, have health literacy, they are less likely to be afraid during medical crises. It was additionally concluded that “health literacy should be seen as […] an essential tool for both information receivers and providers in order to mitigate and contain the current pandemic and potential future ones” (10). Unfortunately, many people lack significant knowledge about proper healthcare. In fact, the rise of COVID-19 “has highlighted that poor health literacy among a population is an underestimated public health problem globally” (Paakkari and Okan e249). As a result, health illiteracy makes individuals, organizations, and countries at large more susceptible to misinformation and disinformation regarding health.
Misinformation, is information that is incorrect in some manner and has the potential to influence understanding to incorrect avenues. One example of misinformation would be the understanding that consuming the chemicals in aquarium filters will cure COVID-19. Disinformation differs from misinformation, though both cause obfuscation of scientific and medical facts. Disinformation is information that is intentionally given falsely to mislead, whereas misinformation is not of malicious intent. The intentional spread of suggesting that chemicals in fish filters will cure COVID, while knowing this is untrue, would be an example of disinformation. Both perpetuate illiteracy, specifically with regard to health.
Social media and the impact of internet accessibility serves as an avenue for information to spread more easily, both to positive and negative effect. “Almost 62% of adults get news from social media” (Kim and Dennis 1025). According to Dean Schillenger, Deepti Chittamuru, and Susana Ramírez in “From ‘Infodemics’ to Health Promotion: A Novel Framework for the Role of Social Media in Public Health”:
“[i]n public health contexts, mass communications—whether generated by the private or public sector—influence population health by shaping discourse about exposure risk and disease, influencing the adoption (or nonadoption) of health-promoting social policies, linking people to health services, and providing education and motivation that influence behaviors” (1393).
Mass communication, specifically social media, influences the discourse of health information shared. The information shared, however does not have to be regulated as “health communications have become more democratized through social media’s interactive functionality and popularity [where] individuals create, share, or exchange information and ideas in virtual […] communities and networks” (Schillinger et al. 13930). As stated by Antino Kim and Alan R. Dennis in “Says Who? The Effects of Presentation Format And Source Rating on Fake News In Social Media,” “on social media, anyone can create ‘news’—real or fake—and share it, and the posts spread quickly as others read and share them” (1025). To put it concisely, individuals can say anything online, without the statements being credible, true, or factual. Government organizations like the WHO and the CDC, are required to follow standards of accuracy and credibility through their own regulations, but often this information appears alongside misinformation at equal rates.
Conspiracy theories, perhaps the highest form of misinformation, are also more likely to be believed during times of crisis. In an interview conducted by Greg Miller, “Researchers are tracking another pandemic, too—of coronavirus misinformation,” Kate Starbird states that “a lot of misinformation is a byproduct of the natural response that people have to a disaster event” (Miller). People are more likely to commiserate with each other and seek reassurances about the uncertainties we face. The “uncertainty contributes to anxiety, and in those conditions of high uncertainty and anxiety, people try to come together to try to make sense of what’s going on, to participate in what we call collective sensemaking” (Miller). The conclusions we come to in are not always correct and often lead people to conspiracy theories, where like-minded individuals can interact. According to Tomasz Oleksy, Anna Wnuk, Dominika Maisoa, and Agnieszka Łyś in “Content matters. Different predictors and social consequences of general and government-related conspiracy theories on COVID-19,” “[c]onspiracy theories act as easily obtainable sources of explanation and may flourish when individuals experience threats to their sense of control [and] can provoke people to seek answers of any kind, often prompting them to indulge conspiracist explanations for distressing occurrences” (Olesky 2). Adrienne LaFrance in her article, “The Prophecies of Q,” states “[c]onspiracy theories are a constant in America” (LaFrance). It is part of human nature to seek reassurances and answers during times of crisis and turn to various sources, many unregulated online sources, that make individuals more susceptible to conspiracy theories. This is especially true when people lack health literacy.
Our study seeks to examine the ways in which social media and internet use has contributed to health literacy (illiteracy) and the spread of misinformation and disinformation, specifically focusing on the prevalence of conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic. Our research has taken form in two parts: the examination of a known conspiracy theory group Qanon and two focus groups with members of the Columbus region about their understanding of COVID-19. We hope to gain a better understanding how and why misinformation and disinformation has spread during the coronavirus pandemic, while many have isolated to slow the spread of the virus.
WHAT IS QANON?
An infamous incident, later known as Pizzagate, where a man attacked a pizza shop in Washington to rescue children who were believed to be sold as sex slaves, orchestrated by the Clintons, appears to be the inciting incident that began Qanon. In a basic sense, Qanon is an online forum (4chan) where someone or a group of people under the name “Q” posts information for followers to read in what is known as “Q drops.” As LaFrance points out “QAnon does not possess a physical location, but it has an infrastructure, a literature, a growing body of adherents, and a great deal of merchandising” (LaFrance). After President Trump’s election, Qanon followers have come to believe that Trump is some sort of savior, though there is no evidence that Trump is actually involved with Q. Within Qanon, “Q+” is symbolic of President Trump. Most of the information is understood to be untrue by the larger portion of the population, but there are those who still follow and believe Q’s words.
Despite the appearance of being a unique sect of radicals Qanon followers come from all walks of life. Nearly 35 congressional candidates have been cited to embrace Q (LaFrance). Zoe Royer of Colorado believes that Qanon “theories [of child sex-trafficking] have captured moms especially, adding that most people have been bored and cooped up at home during the pandemic” (Chavez). One of the most prevalent people in Qanon, Dave Hayes, is a Christian paramedic that has devoted himself to deciphering Q drops and has even published a book about Qanon titled Calm Before the Storm (LaFrance, Chavez). Chavez describes one of her friends as someone who “generally aligns with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party” but is still convinced of Barack Obama’s “participation in satanic rituals with other Democratic Party figures” (Chavez). QAnon appeals to people of all demographics and party affiliations, though the trend of QAnon followers is to be conservatives.
As COVID-19 arose, most of the world began posting their beliefs and views about the virus. Q, likewise, posted about the virus on the Qanon forums. The predominant messages from Q and followers alike, were:
“that the coronavirus might not be real; that if it was, it had been created by the ‘deep state,’ the star chamber of government officials and other elite figures who secretly run the world; that the hysteria surrounding the pandemic was part of a plot to hurt Trump’s reelection chances; and that media elites were cheering the death toll” (LaFrance).
Additionally, on March 9, 2020 it has been reported that Q indicated that “The coronavirus is real, but welcome, and followers should not be afraid” (LaFrance). These types of sentiments, which have been expressed beyond Qanon itself, are what inspired us to closely examine the Qanon forums and interview individuals about their sources of COVID-19 in order to come to an understanding of health information during the pandemic.
Our methods for this project is primarily founded in grounded theory (GT). Grounded theory is based in the idea that a theory is produced as the data is gathered. Specifically “one of the defining characteristics of GT is that it aims to generate theory that is grounded in the data” with “the aim being to produce or construct an explanatory theory that uncovers a process inherent to the substantive area of inquiry” (Tie et al. 1, 2). The theory produced was entirely derived from the qualitative data collected.