Amid misinformation, few adults put significant trust in any health institution or media to be accurate about health topics, poll finds

By Darius Tahir
KFF Health News

Around 3 in 10 Americans still believe ivermectin, a dewormer for animals, is an effective treatment for Covid-19. And few of them place significant trust in any form of news media or official institution to accurately convey information about health topics, from covid treatments and vaccines to reproductive health issues. So says a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, an independent source of health-policy research, polling and journalism.

The confusion about what’s true — and who’s telling the truth — is of critical importance to public health, experts in political science said. “Misinformation leads to lives being lost and health problems not being resolved,” Bob Blendon, a professor emeritus of public health at Harvard University, said in an interview. Blendon was not associated with the survey.

The KFF poll of 2,007 U.S. adults found that nearly a third said ivermectin was definitely or probably an effective treatment for Covid-19. It’s not. Numerous randomized controlled trials have found otherwise. But only 22% in the poll thought ivermectin was definitely ineffective.

A fifth of those polled thought it was definitely or probably true that the Covid-19 vaccine had killed more people than the virus itself. Under half, 47%, thought that claim was definitely false, which it is. And 30% of respondents thought parents should not be required to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella, which all states do.

The prevalence of vaccine misinformation is “alarming,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who has spent years studying the transmission of false information.

Lunna Lopes, a senior survey analyst at KFF and one of the poll’s authors, said the results show wide exposure to, but limited uptake of, false claims. “Just because they’re exposed to it doesn’t mean they’re buying into it,” she said. Still, the din of misinformation might leave the populace unsure what to believe. “You might be less trusting, and less likely to outright reject false information.”

The poll also found only grudging trust, at best, for media sources of all kinds and the federal government. The limited trust the survey recorded is colored by wide partisan gaps, noted Nyhan.

Respondents did not have “a lot” of trust in the information relayed by any news media institution. Just over a quarter had this high level of trust for local TV news, and that was the highest mark of the news media tested, which ran the ideological and stylistic gamut from MSNBC to The New York Times to Fox News and Newsmax. More people had just “a little” trust in each of these institutions.

For Blendon, the mildness of the trust is a problem. It suggests that “we are short” of trusted sources of news about health.

He said journalists and editors should consider that there’s “something about the way you’re presenting information that’s not seen as credible by viewers.” Seventy percent of those in the poll said news media don’t do enough to limit the spread of health misinformation, and 69% said social-media companies weren’t doing enough.

Blendon said the public conversation about these topics tends to focus on the often-extreme declarations and wild claims featured on social media and on corporate and government attempts to regulate the medium.

While the poll shows Americans use social media quite frequently, they have very little faith in the health information they see there. No social media outlet enjoyed a double-digit percentage of respondents saying they had “a lot” of trust in it.

Even so, said Lopes, a significant slice of the public — about a quarter — turn to these platforms for health information and advice. “That stood out to us,” she said. Latinos and the young are especially likely to use the forums.

The picture is similarly bleak for official institutions. Around a quarter of respondents said they had “a great deal” of trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations.
That dropped to a fifth when it came to the Food and Drug Administration. The Biden administration and Donald Trump lagged behind.

Asked about state and local public-health officials, 13% said they trusted them “a great deal” and 51% said “a fair amount, ranking their overall trust just behind the FDA and the CDC.

Those numbers, combined with the partisan gaps in trust, were especially discouraging for Nyhan. “They will be essential sources of information in future pandemics despite their errors and misjudgments during the pandemic,” he said of public-health institutions.

By far the most highly trusted source of health information? One’s own doctor. Forty-eight percent of respondents had a great deal of trust in their recommendations.

The survey, the KFF Health Misinformation Tracking Poll Pilot, was conducted May 23 through June 12, online and by telephone among a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults in English and Spanish.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF.

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