Working Paper: Trust in Institutions, COVID-19 Related Information Seeking and Vaccination Messaging in South Africa

Data for this study was collected between May 24 and June 5, 2021. Facebook and Instagram users located in South Africa were invited to participate via paid advertisements. The study consists of two parts. First, we surveyed 1,585 South Africans to understand their general attitudes towards COVID-19, as well as their information seeking behavior during the pandemic. They were also asked about their most trusted sources of information and their views of the South African government’s response. A smaller number of respondents (N = 1,180) took part in an online experiment that sought to determine the effectiveness of social media messaging strategies to promote vaccination, as well as the role that messenger characteristics play in shaping the effectiveness of these messages.Β  We found that, overall, medical doctors and the World Health Organization were the most trusted sources of information, followed by radio and television. News websites, family, and the South African government were less trusted, but still more trusted than social media, friends, community leaders, celebrities, and faith leaders. Overall trust in media sources (including TV, radio and news websites), is higher than the overall level of trust for institutions (i.e., WHO and SA government) even though, South Africans say they trust information from the World Health Organization (WHO) substantially more than information that comes from the South African government in general. Our experiment suggests that South African media users strongly disapprove of the way that the government is handling the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, and have overall low levels of trust in the ANC. The experiment further suggests that this trust deficit in the messenger also negatively impacts on their trust in the message itself, and their likelihood to share messages. These findings have serious implications for the government’s ability to communicate pro-vaccination information to its citizens.

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