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Fake news is depressing

July 5, 2022

New research links belief in fake news about COVID-19 with anxiety and depression. Could better mental health care reduce the spread of false information?

https://p.dw.com/p/4DBkL
Wooden blocks spell out F A K T/E
Is it fake news or "fakt" (as the Germans say)? You may find the facts depressing but if you have mental health issues like anxiety and depression, you be more prone to believing what is fake. Image: S. Ziese/blickwinkel/picture alliance

A study has found that people who believe in false information about the coronavirus 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, Pawel Debski. 

But the study does not show that depression and anxiety symptoms directly drive belief in false information. Nor does it provide explanations for 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 the pandemic included the ideas that governments exaggerated the number of COVID-19 deaths, that 5G spreads the coronavirus, 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 the pandemic, while anxiety was more moderately linked.

The study suggested high correlations between belief in false pandemic 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 because of the coronavirus and restrictions brought in to curb the spread, 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 and anxiety for one's own health and that of loved ones were said to be among the biggest stress factors. Key workers such as health care professionals also cited exhaustion as affecting their mental health.

Research from the UK-based mental health charity Mind suggests that people who struggled with their mental health prior to the onset of the pandemic were most affected by restrictions and lockdowns. 

Is social media to blame for fake news about COVID-19?

More than half of EU citizens believe they have been exposed to disinformation online, according to a report published by the European Commission based on a 2018 poll. 

Other studies show a similar pattern. 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 that 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. 

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," Debski said.

But, according to Mind, 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," Mind spokesperson Stephen Buckley said. "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.

Edited by: Zulfikar Abbany

DW-Mitarbeiter Fred Schwaller, PhD
Fred Schwaller Science writer fascinated by the brain and the mind, and how science influences society@schwallerfred