Are socio-demographic and economic characteristics good predictors of misinformation during an epidemic?
13 Pages Posted: 28 Oct 2020 Last revised: 15 Aug 2022
Date Written: September 5, 2020
What characterizes a conspiracy theorist? Combining data on beliefs about the origin of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia with conventional and machine learning methods, we uncover that, contrary to popular beliefs, socio-demographic and economic indicators play a minor role in predicting who is more likely to believe false information about the origin of the epidemic. Conspiracy theorists are not any poorer, older, less educated, more economically distressed, more rural, or ethnically different than individuals who are correctly informed. They are, however, significantly more likely to report high levels of distrust, especially towards governmental institutions. Using a regression discontinuity design, we find that access to cell phone coverage can play a key role in belief-updating: individuals with coverage are 7 percentage points more likely to switch from misinformed to informed by the end of the epidemic. These results highlight the importance of government trust and information and communication technologies in reducing misinformation during epidemics.
Keywords: Misinformation, Epidemic, Ebola Virus Disease, Trust, Cell Phone Coverage, Machine Learning
JEL Classification: I15, I18, O22
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation