Are conspiracy theories undermining the fight against COVID-19?

  • Date

    Wed 29 Apr 20

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One in four British people believe the devastation caused by COVID-19 was intentional, and this, researchers say, could hamper efforts to fight the pandemic and prevent future outbreaks.

Psychologists from the University of Essex questioned over 700 people, aged 18 to 82, about the various conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic – from the idea it was developed in a laboratory in China, through to it being a plot to cull the population or a way for pharmaceutical companies to profit by selling vaccines.

While the majority – 57% give no credence to these theories, 26% believe at least one of them to be true and a further 17% say they don’t know.

Researchers looked at the relationship between believing in conspiracy theories and behaviour. They found believers and non-believers were equally likely to follow social distancing rules and hand washing advice, but believers were more likely to stockpile essential items, pass on misinformation and spread conspiracy theories through social media.

They were also less willing to be tested for coronavirus and half said that even when a vaccine is developed, they wouldn’t want to be vaccinated - this compares with 98% of non-believers, who said they would be vaccinated.

Dr Marie Juanchich, who led the research said: “At a time of uncertainty, when people feel they have no control over what is happening, it is not surprising that conspiracy theories and misinformation take hold, but potentially this has very damaging consequences.

“We found a strange paradox – while conspiracy believers demonstrated cautious behaviour, such as  stock-piling to make sure they were prepared for a disaster and following social distancing measures, at the same time their fundamental mistrust of government and authority makes them reluctant to be tested for coronavirus or vaccinated to prevent future outbreaks.

“Unless we actively engage and target these people, it may harm the government’s attempts to get this virus under control and prevent any future outbreak through testing and vaccination.Trust in government messaging is more important than ever, but efforts to stop the virus spread is being undermined by false information and conspiracy theories.”

The study was carried out in March and April, just before and after the UK government introduced a nationwide lockdown. It found belief in a coronavirus conspiracy theory wasn’t dependent on age or gender, but less educated people were more likely to believe in a conspiracy.

They were also more likely to have a general conspiracy mindset, expressing suspicions about other issues, such as climate change, as well as mistrust in government. They tend to rely more on their intuition, rather than analysing the information they are presented with.

The research team, which also includes Dr Miroslav Sirota and PhD student Daniel Jolles, now plans further research on ways to increase the uptake of tests and vaccinations and reduce the spread of misinformation.