Misinformation: Survey reveals negative impact on girls and young women


A new survey has revealed the negative impacts that girls and young women are experiencing from “dangerous” online information.

In a time when the Covid pandemic has forced everyone to live more of their lives online, the negative impact of misinformation has been revealed in The Truth Gap, a new report released today by Plan International Australia.

More than 26,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 24 years old, from 26 countries were surveyed for the report, which found 87 per cent thought misinformation and disinformation had had a negative impact on their lives.

One-in-three reported false information affected their mental health, leaving them feeling stressed, worried and anxious. While one-in-five had been left feeling physically unsafe.

Sydney resident Margaret Thanos, 21, said she had seen misinformation on social media about natural cures for Covid as well as other medical issues.

“I personally suffer from several conditions that only affect the female body and that I think have been misdiagnosed by doctors,” she told news.com.au.

“I turned to the internet lots, to seek out treatment, understanding and knowledge.

“I think a lot of people are turning to the internet for things they don’t understand and that’s why misinformation is dangerous – if you’re learning about your health condition from a platform that is not reputable or has it wrong.

“I think it becomes dangerous.”

Ms Thanos said she had seen advertising including for oral contraceptive pills that don’t require a prescription, something that is not yet possible in Australia and that the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners opposes.

“I think as an adolescent I’ve found it difficult to navigate different sources,” she said.

Ms Thanos also believes fear mongering around the AstraZeneca vaccine also made her scared to get the jab at first.

“The government possibly wasn’t putting out the most clear messaging around AstraZeneca,” she said.

“It wasn’t recommended for people my age, so I was hesitant to get it, then they started saying ‘go get it’.

“Eventually I did but it means I was a bit later to the game.”

She said her fears were also heightened due to knowing someone who had died after getting the jab. It made the process of getting vaccinated very stressful.

“I was standing outside the chemist crying because I thought I was going to die,” she said.

After weighing the risk and realising the risk of dying from a vaccine was very small – around one in a million – and that Covid-19 was dangerous even for people her age, Ms Thanos did get vaccinated and was glad she did.

Online video platform YouTube has recognised the extent of the misinformation problem, announcing last week that it would ban videos claiming approved vaccines were dangerous or cause chronic health effects, or don’t reduce transmission or contraction of the virus.

Sydney resident Olivia Causer, 18, knows of many people who were scared to get vaccinated because of misinformation spread on social media by what she describes as “uneducated influencers”.

“It made people more hesitant and made them wait to get the vaccine,” she said.

“I definitely know my friends who were hesitant are relieved now that they’re vaccinated.

“Looking back at it, I don’t know why we were so worried.

“The reason was misinformation and the way the vaccination rollout was communicated to the public. When there’s not a clear message, it’s not going to end well.”

‘Real life consequences’ of misinformation

The Plan International report found 83 per cent of Australian girls and young women surveyed said they had been exposed to false or misleading information, about 95 per cent said they were concerned about misinformation or disinformation online.

More than half of the 1001 Australian girls surveyed said that misinformation, lies and conspiracies about Covid-19 was most common, followed by climate change (38 per cent) and racial justice (37 per cent).

Plan International Australia, which says the findings lay bare the “real life consequences” of misinformation and disinformation on girls and young women, is calling on governments to educate children and young people in digital literacy, through an online petition.

“The internet shapes girls’ opinions about themselves, the issues they care about and the world around them,” Plan International chief executive officer Susanne Legena said.

“Our research makes clear that the spread of false information online has real life consequences. It is dangerous, it affects girls’ mental health, and it’s yet another thing holding them back from engaging in public life.”

She said girls and young women were being bombarded online with lies and stereotypes about their bodies, who they are and how they should behave.

“Images and videos are manipulated to objectify and shame them. Rumours are spread as a form of abuse. And girls have a very real fear that fake events and profiles will lure and trick them into danger offline,” she said.

Misinformation is increasing social tensions

In-depth interviews also suggested girls felt unsafe because online exchanges were increasing social tensions within communities.

Others reported concerns about bogus events advertised on social media placing them at physical risk, or unreliable medical advice that could harm their health or impact their confidence in legitimate medical advice.

The survey found that Facebook was the social media platform that girls believe to have the most misinformation and disinformation, selected by 65 per cent of Australian respondents, followed by TikTok, WhatsApp and YouTube – all at 27 per cent.

Seven out of 10 said they had seen misinformation/disinformation on social media platforms, with about 51 per cent saying they had seen it on video sharing platforms, about 36 per cent on forums and message boards and 36 per cent on blogs.

About 35 per cent said they had found misinformation on Wikipedia or other wiki pages and search engines.

Most girls had not been taught to identify misinformation at school (67 per cent) or by their parents (75 per cent).

Globally, the most trusted source was mainstream news media, selected by 48 per cent of those surveyed, above educational institutions, family members and national governments.

About 28 per cent of the women surveyed around the world had been led to believe a myth or ‘fake fact’ about Covid-19, and 25 per cent questioned whether to get vaccinated against the virus.

About 19 per cent say mistruths are so rife they have distrusted election results, while one-in-five stopped engaging in politics or current affairs as a result.

Girls and young women from low and middle-income countries were more likely to be affected by unreliable or false information online, and twice as likely to have questioned whether to get the vaccine (31 per cent) than those in high income countries (16 per cent).

charis.chang@news.com.au | @charischang2

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