The Impact of COVID-19 on Conspiracy Hypotheses and Risk Perception in Italy: Infodemiological Survey Study Using Google Trends

JMIR Infodemiology. 2021 Aug 6;1(1):e29929. doi: 10.2196/29929. eCollection 2021 Jan-Dec.


Background: COVID-19 has caused the worst international crisis since World War II. Italy was one of the countries most affected by both the pandemic and the related infodemic. The success of anti-COVID-19 strategies and future public health policies in Italy cannot separate itself from the containment of fake news and the divulgation of correct information.

Objective: The aim of this paper was to analyze the impact of COVID-19 on web interest in conspiracy hypotheses and risk perception of Italian web users.

Methods: Google Trends was used to monitor users' web interest in specific topics, such as conspiracy hypotheses, vaccine side effects, and pollution and climate change. The keywords adopted to represent these topics were mined from Italian website specializing in detecting online hoaxes-and Google Trends suggestions (ie, related topics and related queries). Relative search volumes (RSVs) of the time-lapse periods of 2016-2020 (pre-COVID-19) and 2020-2021 (post-COVID-19) were compared through percentage difference (∆%) and the Welch t test (t). When data series were not stationary, other ad hoc criteria were used. The trend slopes were assessed through Sen slope (SS). The significance thresholds have been indicatively set at P=.05 and t=1.9.

Results: The COVID-19 pandemic drastically increased Italian netizens' interest in conspiracies (∆% ∈ [60, 288], t ∈ [6, 12]). Web interest in conspiracy-related queries across Italian regions increased and became more homogeneous compared to the pre-COVID-19 period (average RSV=80±2.8, t min=1.8, ∆min%=+12.4, minSD%=-25.8). In addition, a growing trend in web interest in the infodemic YouTube channel ByoBlu has been highlighted. Web interest in hoaxes has increased more than interest in antihoax services (t 1=11.3 vs t 2=4.5; Δ1%=+157.6 vs Δ2%=+84.7). Equivalently, web interest in vaccine side effects exceeded interest in pollution and climate change (SSvaccines=0.22, P<.001 vs SSpollution=0.05, P<.001; ∆%=+296.4). To date, a significant amount of fake news related to COVID-19 vaccines, unproven remedies, and origin has continued to circulate. In particular, the creation of SARS-CoV-2 in a Chinese laboratory constituted about 0.04% of the entire web interest in the pandemic.

Conclusions: COVID-19 has given a significant boost to web interest in conspiracy hypotheses and has made it more uniform across regions in Italy. The pandemic accelerated an already-growing trend in users' interest toward some fake news sources, including the 500,000-subscriber YouTube channel ByoBlu, which was removed from the platform by YouTube for disinformation in March 2021. The risk perception related to COVID-19 vaccines has been so distorted that vaccine side effect-related queries outweighed those relating to pollution and climate change, which are much more urgent issues. Moreover, a large amount of fake news has circulated about COVID-19 vaccines, remedies, and origin. Based on these findings, it is recommended that the Italian authorities implement more effective infoveillance systems, and that communication by the mass media be less sensationalistic and more consistent with the available scientific evidence. In this context, Google Trends can be used to monitor users' response to specific infodemiological countermeasures. Further research is needed to understand the psychological mechanisms that regulate risk perception.

Keywords: COVID-19; Google Trends; Italy; fake news; infodemiology; risk perception.