Conspiracy beliefs hamper US response to COVID-19

Conspiracy beliefs hamper US response to COVID-19

Written by Robby Berman on September 30, 2020 — Fact checked by Hannah Flynn, MS

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

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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.


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