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Conspiracy beliefs hamper US response to COVID-19

A study finds that belief in conspiracy theories and its effect upon individual behaviors rose between March and July 2020.

While many other countries have managed to control the spread of COVID-19, the death toll from the disease continues to rise in the United States.

The Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia has published a study examining how the belief in conspiracy theories has led to an unwillingness among many U.S. citizens’ to engage in activities that could curtail the spread of the disease.

Many people in the U.S. continue to believe that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were exaggerating the seriousness of COVID-19, that China created the virus, or that the pharmaceutical industry created it to sell more drugs.

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“Belief in pandemic conspiracy theories appears to be an obstacle to minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” says study co-author Dan Romer, research director of APPC. APPC director Kathleen Hall Jamieson is the study’s other author.

The authors published the study in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Analyzing attitudes

The study authors conducted surveys from March 17–27, 2020, and July 1–21, 2020. In March, the researchers interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,050 U.S. adults. In July, they questioned 840 individuals from that original sample.

Belief in COVID-19 conspiracies rose between March and July of 2020:

  • In March, 28% believed that the virus was a bioweapon created by the Chinese government. That number rose to 37% in July.
  • In March, 24% suspected that people at the CDC were exaggerating the seriousness of COVID-19 to damage the re-election prospects of President Donald Trump. In July, 32% believed this to be the case.
  • 15%, or 1 in 7, believed in March that the pharmaceutical industry had created the disease to sell drugs, and eventually, vaccines. By July, that number was 17%.

In the spring, the APPC released a study that explored the sources of misinformation regarding COVID-19. The study found associations between a belief in conspiracy theories and the heavy consumption of conservative media outlets and social media.

Once a person believes a conspiracy theory, says Jamieson, it is hard to change their mind.

“Conspiracy theories are difficult to displace because they provide explanations for events that are not fully understood, such as the current pandemic, play on people’s distrust of government and other powerful actors, and involve accusations that cannot be easily fact-checked,” she explains.

The authors found that conspiracy beliefs were most common among people belonging to disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups, a troubling finding since fatalities from the disease are disproportionately high among people of color.

However, the study found that older people in the U.S., who are at high risk of COVID-19 fatalities, were less likely to believe in conspiracies.

Conspiracy theories’ effect on public health

The study finds that a belief in conspiracies is inversely proportional to the likelihood that a person will wear a face mask or get vaccinated.

People who do not believe in conspiracy theories are 1.5 times more likely to wear a face mask outside the home when in contact with other people.

The authors found that 62% of conspiracy believers reported wearing a mask compared to 95% of other people. Political orientation also seemed to be a factor in whether people wore a mask. The study indicated that liberals were more likely to wear a mask than conservatives.

By July, the study found that fewer people overall intended to get vaccinated.

In March, 37% of those who believed strongly in conspiracy theories intended to get a vaccination; by July, that percentage had fallen to 22%.

COVID-19 conspiracy believers were more skeptical of vaccines in general, including those for rubella, measles, and mumps (MMR).

Finally, in March, 81% of people who did not believe in conspiracy theories planned to have the vaccination, although that number had gone down to 76% by July.

The researchers found no meaningful association between political beliefs and the drop in the number of people intending to get vaccinated.

The study concludes:

“Because belief in COVID-related conspiracy theories predicts resistance to both preventive behaviors and future vaccination for the virus, it will be critical to confront both conspiracy theories, and vaccination misinformation to prevent further spread of the virus in the U.S. Reducing those barriers will require continued messaging by public health authorities on mainstream media and in particular on politically conservative outlets that have supported COVID-related conspiracy theories.”

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  • Posted on September 30, 2020