Social media has been a boon and a bane during the pandemic—helping many keep up on health updates and stay connected with friends and family, but also spreading a raft of misinformation.

To better understand the impact of COVID-19 on social media use, Wunderman Thompson teamed up with the World Health Organization, the University of Melbourne and Pollfish to survey 23,500 people aged 18-40 years in 24 hotspot countries. Respondents were reached on their mobile devices between October 24, 2020 and January 7, 2021.

The report, titled “Social Media & COVID-19: A Global Study of Digital Crisis Interaction Among Gen Z and Millennials,” looks at who gen Z and millennials across the world trust for COVID-19 news, what they are most likely to share on social media and their awareness of false news. It also unearths differences amongst countries, offering lessons for governments, health organizations, businesses and schools on how to reach this cohort.

Below, we share top findings from the report.

Trusted sources

When it comes to COVID-19 news, gen Z and millennials—the digital natives on these platforms—are quietly turning to trusted sources like mainstream media, as well as health and science experts and global organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO).

Gen Z and millennials say they typically rely on multiple sources of COVID-19 news, with 43% saying they go first to national newspapers, TV and radio, 36% saying they actively search on search sites and 35% saying they turn to international news media.

Social media content by mainstream media (34%) is also popular, as is social media content from WHO (32%). Health and science experts are the next most popular (29%), followed by government sources (28%).

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Photography by Wyron, courtesy of Unsplash

Family and friends

Last fall, some US colleges began recruiting students as COVID-19 influencers to share coronavirus content, with a view that students were more likely to heed their peers.

But the study noted that only 22% of respondents get COVID-19 information first from family, 20% from friends and 16% via their friends’ social media content.

There are variations among countries, likely linked to trust in local institutions as well as local culture. In India, Mexico and Nigeria, the WHO’s social media channels are the most popular initial destination for COVID-19 news and information, rather than national mainstream media. These countries also happen to rank low on the World Press Freedom Index 2020 by Reporters Without Borders. India ranks 142nd out of 180 countries on press freedom, Mexico ranks 143rd and Nigeria 115th.

Science is share-worthy

When asked what COVID-19 information—if any—they most likely share on social media, 44% of respondents say “scientific” content, which is the top choice for both male and female respondents. This is followed by information “relevant to me” (37%) and content that is “concerning” (29%).

Also noteworthy is the fact that 28% say they most likely share content that includes an article, followed by posts that include a video (24%), image (23%), narrative (21%), sparks an emotional reaction (18%) and is humorous (18%).

This bucks the general trend on social media where funny, entertaining and emotional content spread fastest.

Awareness of false news is high, but so is apathy

More than half (59%) of those surveyed indicate that they are “very aware” of false news surrounding COVID-19, with a further 33% “somewhat aware.”

But less than half (41%) say they always make sure content is accurate before posting it on social media, while only 37% say they do so “most of the time.” Over a third (38%) admit to having shared content on social media that they later found was incorrect. Of these, 87% say they later corrected or deleted the content.

About a third (35%) respondents say that when they encounter false content, they ignore it, while 24% report the content and 19% comment on it. Only 9% unfollow the account that shared it.

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Photography by Chad Madden, courtesy of Unsplash

Gen Z and millennials have myriad competing worries beyond getting sick

Overall, the risk of friends and family members contracting COVID-19 was the top concern of respondents (56%), closely followed by the economy crashing (54%).

In fact, a crashing economy is the top concern of respondents in half the countries surveyed, namely Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia, Italy, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, South Africa, Spain, and Turkey.

Related are worries surrounding employment uncertainty (40% overall and the top concern in India), and facing financial constraints (40%).

Respondents are also anxious about COVID-19 wrecking their social lives. 38% are concerned about not being able to visit friends and family and 23% fear losing touch with their social community. 33% are worried about the pandemic’s impact on mental health, 31% about access to healthcare and 27% about access to education.

Interest in vaccines is high

55% of gen Z and millennials are interested in information regarding COVID-19 vaccines and 42% said social media content by the WHO would be their first source.

By contrast, interest in the opinions of celebrities and influencers on COVID-19 ranked low.

Young adults are overwhelmed and skeptical, yet ultimately optimistic

More than half (58%) of the gen Z and millennials surveyed strongly or somewhat agree that they are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there on COVID-19. 52% have stopped paying attention.

More than half say they feel that the media is not “telling me everything” and the same goes for their government.

Still, 57% feel optimistic about the future, with about the same proportion saying things would go back to normal with a vaccine.

The report and survey data are publicly available here, including an interactive dashboard where findings can be sliced by country, gender, age, income and other criteria.

The report surveyed 1,000 per country in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and 500 in South Korea.

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