Research Spotlight: Distrust in Social Institutions During COVID-19

The United States is seeing a growing distrust in social institutions of knowledge like science and media. These groups which attempt to systematically validate or invalidate information are losing influence in favor of alternative sources of information like blogs, YouTube videos and conspiracy theorists. This poses an obvious threat to public health in the context of Covid-19 and climate change, but it also means a threat to coherent social discourse. If we cannot agree on the truths of a problem, how are we to work together on a solution?

 So, why is it that individuals are turning towards these alternative sources of information? There are a few popular theories; people are seeking out sources that tell them what they want to hear, they think the alternative source has a valuable point of view which is being silenced, or maybe they genuinely trust the criteria by which these alternative sources base their claims. To answer this question, I looked into over 4,000 tweets discussing Covid-19 to see which sources of information they were referencing, whether they were evaluating that source through defenses or critiques, and what claims the tweets were making when referencing different sources. As it turns out, traditional institutions of knowledge are being misinterpreted and scrutinized under a magnifying glass while “outsider” sources of information are not being critically engaged.

 Institutional sources of information like the scientific community and government agencies aren’t having their claims taken at face value. Twitter users often referenced CDC’s published list of vaccine ingredients (which contain scary words like formaldehyde) to claim that they are unsafe. Additionally, institutional representatives like politicians, the scientific community, the CDC, and “mainstream media” all received heavy doses of critiques ranging from lies and censoring to unethical or inhumane behavior. These critiques parallel a trend of growing distrust in public institutions in the United States.

Meanwhile, the conspiratorial Dr. Yan, famous for claiming that SARS-CoV-2 is a bioweapon from the Chinese Communist Party, received remarkably scant critical feedback on her credibility or her claims. Out of the tweets which made reference to the scientific community, about 47% critiqued them, where only about 7% of tweets referencing Dr. Yan critiqued her. While about 40% of tweets referencing the CDC misinterpreted their information to make a conspiratorial claim, almost 100% of tweets referencing Dr. Yan adopted her bioweapon claim. I take these findings, that Dr. Yan’s credibility and claims are not critically evaluated, to suggest the role of motivated reasoning in deferring to alternative sources of information.

         My findings would suggest that, at least in the case of Covid-19, the trend of seeking knowledge from decentralized sources is not founded on a criterion for validating information. Rather, this trend is driven by a distrust in social institutions and perhaps motivation to validate one’s own predisposition. Further research should explicitly consider the role of politicization in epistemic contests. If motivated reasoning is a driving force behind the transition to decentralized sources of information, attention to different political motivations may illustrate some mechanisms influencing who an individual goes to for information.

Kyle Rose is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Florida State University.

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