Communication’s Devon Greyson Warns of Public Opinion Survey Contributions to COVID Misinformation in Recent Research Brief

Devon Greyson
Devon Greyson

In a recent research brief published by the Canadian online public health resource CanVax, Devon Greyson, communication, warns that the COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by an “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation, which has been fed by numerous public opinion surveys aiming to assess how health messages have been received.

Greyson and co-authors Noni E. MacDonald and Janice E. Graham of Dalhousie University and Eve Dubé of Université Québec, write that true/false and multiple-choice survey questionnaires “risk planting seeds of confusion in those unaware of the misleading information – especially if the survey comes from trusted authorities.” To help prevent issues as a result of well-intentioned research, they call for survey design to be undertaken carefully in consultation with experts in the psychology of survey design and in controlling misinformation.

One example they cite is a recent survey that asked respondents whether it should be mandatory to receive a COVID vaccine – 60% of respondents said “yes” – although there likely will not be enough doses of a vaccine for the population when one is found to be effective. Rather than asking if the vaccine should be mandatory, they write that it would have been more helpful to ask “Who should have first access to the COVID-19 vaccine when available and why?” as an open-ended question.

“Regardless of intention, misleading information can spread rapidly in the era of social media and 24/7 news coverage, aided by the influence of fear, anxiety, and stress on learning, beliefs, and health decisions,” they write. “It is therefore incumbent on those conducting COVID-19 rapid research, especially research associated with public awareness and knowledge translation, to avoid contributing to the spread of misinformation and disinformation through their work.”

The complete research brief is available on CanVax.ca.