Article By: Deutsche Welle
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New research links belief in fake news about COVID-19 with anxiety and depression. Could better mental healthcare reduce the spread of false information?
A study has found people who believe in false information about the COVID-19 pandemic are more likely to suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression.
"Our study shows the potential negative impact of false beliefs about COVID-19 on mental health," said the study's lead researcher Paweł Dębski.
But the study does not show that depression and anxiety symptoms directly drive belief in false information. Nor does it provide explanations of how belief in false information might drive mental health difficulties.
False information is depressing
Using two online questionnaires — the COVID-19 Conspiratorial Beliefs Scale and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale — the researchers looked for correlations between false beliefs and mental health conditions.
They say they found that common false beliefs about COVID included those that governments exaggerated the number of COVID-19 deaths, that 5G spreads COVID-19 and that wearing a mask causes oxygen deficiency and carbon dioxide poisoning.
And they say they also found that depression had a high relationship with belief in false information about COVID, while anxiety was more moderately linked.
The study suggested high correlations between belief in false COVID information and belief in broader conspiracy theories.
The pandemic hit mental health hard
Experts have described the pandemic as highlighting a crisis in mental health.
The World Health Organization reports that mental health issues spiked across the world due to COVID and restrictions brought in to curb the pandemic, such as lockdowns.
Depression and anxiety rose by 25% in the first year of the pandemic, with young people and women showing the sharpest rise in symptoms.
Social isolation, anxiety for one's own health and that of loved ones were said to be among the biggest stress factors. Key workers like healthcare professionals also cited exhaustion as affecting their mental health.
Is social media to blame for fake news about COVID?
More than half of Europeans believe they have been exposed to disinformation online, according to a report published by the European Commission.
The pandemic saw online and social media use at all-time highs, according to research by Statista, and a study in the journal Science suggests false information reaches more people than factual information on social media.
It's a phenomenon that psychologists call "negative bias." It happens when people focus on what is potentially harmful rather than what is helpful.
And the theory is that focusing on negative information makes depressive symptoms worse, and that that in turn drives further belief in false information.
Better mental health support needed to keep things factual
The study suggests that belief in conspiracy theories appeals to people whose key psychological needs are unmet, such as a sense of control over one's life. For example, people who feel powerless in their lives may use false information as a way to control what they believe.
"We think belief in false information contributes to a weakened sense of security, causing the development of anxiety and depression," Dębski said.
But mental health charity Mind says that supporting people with reliable information about mental health itself would help.
"We encounter lots of misconceptions around mental health every day in the media and online," said Mind's Stephen Buckley. "Tackling negative attitudes is key to reducing stigma, which can help to play a part in addressing social isolation and potential susceptibility to fake news."
So, supporting people through mental health issues may also help them build trust in factual information.
And that may be especially true, says Buckley, for people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, or people living in poverty, who are "nearly twice as likely to use online communities to get information about their mental health. It's essential that we ensure these spaces are safe, trustworthy and reputable."