People we spoke to drew on different sources of information to understand the pandemic. Types of information that were important were how to identify symptoms and what the rules and guidance were at the time. People we spoke to sometimes struggled to make sense of conflicting opinions. In this section we discuss:
- Mainstream news and public information from official sources
- Social media
- Other people’s experiences of Covid
- ‘Fake news’, rumours and conspiracy theories
- Making sense of information when there are different views
Mainstream news and public information from official sources
During the first two years of the pandemic there were daily updates on the number of infections, people in hospital with Covid, and deaths. These were reported on official websites and broadcast media like the news reports on tv and radio.
Several people told us that they paid close attention to BBC news updates and to the regular news conferences with Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister at the time.
Emdad watched BBC News at 10pm every day. He worried when the numbers were going up and was hopeful when they dropped.
In ‘The Pandemic becomes real’ we discussed that even though numbers were alarming it was often only when someone close became ill that people took the pandemic seriously.
At government news conferences the Prime Minister Boris Johnson was often seen with the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty, and Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Sir Patrick Vallance. These public figures became widely known because of their regular television appearances. Matt and others commented that the scientists added credibility to the government announcements of restrictions and ‘lock-down’ rules.
Zubair signed up for a daily news feed and added his own data through the Zoe app, which tracked reports of symptoms, vaccinations and test results of over 4 million people across the country. Some people we spoke to found reading daily news about Covid exhausting. Irene wasn’t sure how much she really wanted to know. Mr. Eshaan said that he always watched the news but turned it off when his wife became anxious.
Karin stopped looking at the news when it became too overwhelming and time-consuming.
Elvis first heard about coronavirus on the BBC news and then searched online.
People told us about their frustration with confusing and contradictory government messaging about things like:
- The benefits of mask wearing
- Which symptoms to look out for
- Whether and when to seek help
- What to do if they had been in contact with someone who was Covid positive
Several people commented that this was particularly bad in the early months of the pandemic, but confusion was common when official rules and guidance changed.
Temitope first thought Covid was transmitted through touch, but later learnt that the virus passed through the air.
People also told us that they felt uncertain about what the ‘rules’ were at different times during the pandemic or in different parts of the UK when restrictions varied between regions.
Cat, a student in Wales, spent a lot of time ‘Googling the rules’.
Some people we talked to said they did not trust the government or the mainstream news. Some thought that data was being manipulated to blame the people who became ill or died. Irene was against the idea that there were more deaths among black people because of their behaviours. Instead, she thought that it was the major inequalities in working and living conditions that meant some people were more exposed to the virus than others (see Risk from exposure).
Social media including WhatsApp groups, Facebook and Twitter became a major source of connection and information for many people we spoke to during the pandemic. While some people criticised these online sources as ‘echo chambers’, where people only hear from others with similar ideas, we also heard positive stories of social media as an important channel for health and care workers or faith leaders to circulate information and help dismiss rumours.
Sam X got information about Covid from Twitter threads and friends as well as some government sources and mainstream news.
Gulsoom says that community messaging via social media was taken more seriously than government or mainstream news.
Laurie became active on social media as part of a group of people with long Covid who were keen to raise awareness of the condition. She eventually made the decision to withdraw from social media. When struggling with the illness itself, constant connection and hostile responses all became too much.
Other people’s experiences of Covid
Some people were relieved to discover that there were others who were living with similar symptoms, especially those which were not the ‘big three’. Hearing about what others were going through was particularly important for people who were unwell many weeks after their initial illness – the group we would now recognise as having ‘long Covid‘.
There was a lot of variety in experiences of illness with Covid, but sometimes people found a close match on a website or on the radio. Sam found a few patients’ stories online which helped them feel less alone. Matt heard a journalist talking about their Covid infection after being double vaccinated and was surprised how similar this experience was to his own.
Hospital workers and care home staff sometimes gave media interviews or wrote articles or blogs about what it was like in their sector when they were trying to cope with waves of seriously ill people. Their stories were harrowing and hard to ignore.
‘Fake news’, rumours and conspiracy theories
Many of the people we talked to referred to ‘fake news’, rumours, conspiracy theories, whispering, or ‘stupid arguments’ as a particular feature of information during the pandemic. Some of the rumours were a result of unclear public information about vaccination, facemasks and symptoms. Gertrude, talking about long Covid explained that ‘what was out there and what was happening were two different things’. Over time, with more research, a clearer picture has emerged about actions that can effectively limit transmission, such as vaccination and facemasks, and the symptoms typically associated with Covid.
There were also more worrying rumours that increased hesitancy among some people we spoke to about taking vaccines and made them worried about going to hospital. One serious rumour people told us about was that people from ethnic minorities were being poorly treated in hospital, or even that there was a government plot to kill them. These rumours mainly circulated on social media and among people who did not use, or did not believe, mainstream news.
Gulsoom pointed out that negative stories tend to be picked up and circulated much faster than neutral or positive accounts.
Some of the most effective challenges to these conspiracy theories came from trusted members of the community – for example a nurse working at the local hospital reassuring people that treatment was safe or hearing from people who did their own research changed their views.
Tony found it persuasive when some ‘anti-vaxxer’ friends changed their minds about the safety of the vaccine.
Emdad said that a senior Imam issued a statement to confirm that Muslims were able to be vaccinated to counter fake news.
Making sense of information when there are different views
Some people we spoke to tried to gather information from a number of different sources. This included searching online or through social media to find out more about news items.
Matthew discussed the pandemic with colleagues, listened to the BBC and read different newspapers to get a variety of perspectives.
Doreen found herself gathering news from the American station CNN as well as other news channels. She was interested in how different stories and reports were presented. As Matt pointed out, information is not in a vacuum and people might trust or mistrust the same information depending on who is speaking and how they hear it.
Matt found that there are lots of different perspectives on what was ‘true’ about Covid.
Shaista got information from news and personal connections. She has also learnt a lot through listening to people talk about their experiences.
It was sometimes hard to know who or what to believe, particularly because new information about the virus was emerging all the time. People whose social or family circle included a doctor, nurse or other health worker would often value the informal advice from an expert who they had no reason to doubt.
Others relied on close family members or friends who they knew would want the best for them. Cat, a student, said that her mum was her ‘main fact checker’. Many of the people we talked to recommended being cautious about what to believe and double-checking information received through a single source.