LAWRENCE — At first glance, the United States and Chile might not seem very similar. But despite their different cultures, languages and economies, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the countries similarly. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases from January to October 2020 shows an almost parallel evolution in both countries, with numbers in the U.S. being an order of magnitude higher than in Chile, but of comparable per capita values.
New research from mass communications scholars at the University of Kansas found that similarities between the two countries extend beyond the evolution of the pandemic to include social unrest, knowledge about COVID-19, use and trust in sources of information, and trust in scientists and the government.
As part of a continuous collaboration in health communication research, researchers from KU and the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile conducted fall 2020 surveys in their respective nations. During 2020, both nations were experiencing significant social unrest. The presidential election in the U.S., coupled with ongoing social division, mass protests throughout the year and politicization of the pandemic, was mirrored in Chile by civil unrest at the lack of opportunity and equality in the nation and the social polarization driven by a constitutional referendum that took place in October 2020. Additionally, the two nations also saw similar developments in engaging in mitigation measures, with quarantine required in some areas, lifted in others and political discord surrounding those measures.
“We had a chance to compare two countries that are not only geographical antipodes but were going through similar social unrest. When we looked at the data, they mimic each other quite closely,” said Mugur Geana, associate professor of journalism & mass communications at KU and one of the study’s authors. “Among other things, this research brought to my attention the role political partisanship plays in how people get health information, how they gather it and who they trust as information sources.”
The study’s findings, which will be presented at the 71st Annual International Communication Association Conference, showed people received information mostly from traditional media and they largely trusted scientists and health experts in both countries. Chileans trusted social media as a source slightly more than Americans, but citizens of both nations reported a high level of distrust in political leaders regarding the pandemic. Both countries saw politicization of information regarding the pandemic, instead of unified or consistent messaging on what people should do to protect themselves, especially in the first half of the year. Respondents in both countries reported contradictory messages from political actors as well as misinformation and disinformation.
The surveys also asked how respondents how knowledgeable they were about the pandemic and how to stay safe, then tested that knowledge.
“In general, we often think we know more than we actually do. We asked how much respondents thought they knew about COVID-19, and then we measured their actual knowledge,” Geana said. “While there was not much difference in actual knowledge between the respondents from the two countries, the scores in perceived knowledge were significantly lower in Chile.”
In the U.S., actual knowledge about COVID-19 was negatively correlated with one’s own perception of risk, while in Chile both perceived and actual knowledge were positively correlated with one’s own perception of risk.
The study also showed age affected knowledge level, but only in the United States. While older Americans had higher scores in COVID-19 knowledge, younger audiences suffered from “COVID burnout,” or a desire to tune out news on the topic, Geana said.
Participants in both countries had almost identical high levels of trust in scientists, low levels of trust in politicians, and they held similar negative opinions about how local authorities had managed the pandemic.
While there were minor differences in how and where people received pandemic-related information, the polarization of trust between scientists and politicians, in both countries, highlighted the importance of good health-related communications. Geana, who directs KU’s Center for Excellence in Health Communications to Underserved Populations, and his Chilean colleagues from the PCUC’s School of Communications and the School of Medicine, said the findings make several things clear:
First, customizing information for specific audiences is even more important during a public health crisis, and officials must competently use different channels and messages to reach everyone.
Second, consistent, nonpoliticized messages from experts are important. Respondents in both countries heard opposing messages, forcing them to choose which were accurate. Anecdotal evidence in the United States suggests that people do take sides, even when their health is on the line.
These results prompted Geana to engage in further studies on the role and the importance of ideological partisanship in influencing health information retrieval and use, and in modeling health behaviors during public health crises.
“While we don’t know to what extent the social polarization existent in both countries played a role in the parallel evolution of the pandemic in Chile and the United States, we were surprised by the similarities exposed by the study about the use and trust in sources of information, actual knowledge about COVID-19 and trust in scientists and politicians,” Geana said. "We are currently planning research to further expand our initial study.”
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