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Conspiracies Grow as COVID Spreads

August 21, 2020

Conspiracies are common, especially during times of stress and social upheaval. So far in 2020, America has seen a confluence of stressors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and race riots across the country. As of this writing, there’s no clear end in sight for either. 

There are many facets to the problem, and one of the most pernicious are the conspiracy theories. But how widespread are they? 

Genuine endorsement of conspiracies is difficult to measure on social media. Research shows that most people don’t read past the headline of the stories they ostensibly endorse and share, so they often spread information that they may not sincerely believe—or in some cases even understand. Instead, many use the stories as a sort of symbolic endorsement, sharing memes and headlines that generally align with their social and political views. For more on this, see “Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19 with Joseph Uscinski,” available here.

A recent Pew Research poll helps quantify the scope of the problem. The good news is that most people (that is, a slight majority) are skeptical of COVID conspiracy theories—or at least the most common version asked about in the poll, that “powerful people intentionally planned the coronavirus outbreak.” 

A poll of American adults taken June 4–10 found that among those who have heard the theories (such as were promulgated by the then-recent Plandemic video) 51 percent said it was probably or definitely not true, while 36 percent said it was probably or definitely true, with 13 percent saying they weren’t sure. As expected—given the myriad conspiracies shared by President Trump—the results revealed political biases, with more conservatives endorsing the conspiracy (47 percent) than rejecting it (40 percent). Meanwhile 63 percent of Democrats rejected the conspiracy, with 25 percent endorsing and about equal percentages of both parties saying they weren’t sure. 

Education level also plays a role. As the Pew research noted, 

Educational attainment is an especially important factor when it comes to perceptions of the conspiracy theory. Around half of Americans with a high school diploma or less education (48%) say the theory is probably or definitely true, according to the survey… That compares with 38% of those who have completed some college but have no degree, 24% of those with a bachelor’s degree and 15% of those with a postgraduate degree.

As predicted, social media plays an important role in disseminating conspiracies and misinformation. Those who often get their news on COVID-19 via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were significantly more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than those who do not (44 percent versus 33 percent). While 19 percent of all respondents heard “a lot” about conspiracies, the number increased to 30 percent for those who often get news about the pandemic from social media. 

Endorsement of conspiracy theories causes several demonstrable harms, including increasing distrust of both news organizations and medical authorities. Conspiracy theories encourage divisiveness and political fragmentation, resulting in tribalism and different groups each with their own set of subjective “facts.” 

Those pushing the conspiracies include anti-science “alternative medicine” promoters, right-wing professional conspiracy peddlers such as Alex Jones, conservative news media, and the Kremlin’s army of disinformation disseminators. As Reuters reporter Robin Emmott noted, 

Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the West to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, generate panic and sow distrust, according to a European Union document seen by Reuters. … The EU document said the Russian campaign, pushing fake news online in English, Spanish, Italian, German and French, uses contradictory, confusing and malicious reports to make it harder for the EU to communicate its response to the pandemic. “A significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets regarding COVID-19 is ongoing,” said the nine-page internal document, dated March 16 … The overarching aim of Kremlin disinformation is to aggravate the public health crisis in Western countries … in line with the Kremlin’s broader strategy of attempting to subvert European societies.”

Conspiracy theories rarely kill directly; they are never helpful but are especially dangerous these days, squandering time, focus, and resources better spent trying to stem the pandemic. The COVID-19 conspiracies are a perfect storm of misinformation, danger, and political opportunity, and in these times critical thinking and skepticism are more vital than ever before.