HomeIf You Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, You'll Likely Have More

If You Believe COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, You’ll Likely Have More

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New research tries to explain conspiracy beliefs. However, only a few studies have looked into what can cause people’s conspiracy theory beliefs to shift over time.

New work suggests that the belief that the COVID-19 outbreak was a hoax – that its severity was overstated or that the virus was intentionally unleashed for malicious purposes – serves as a “gateway” to conspiracy theory belief in general.

In the two-survey analysis, respondents who indicated stronger trust in pandemic conspiracy theories – for which there is no evidence – were more likely to later report believing that Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential election was stolen through massive voting fraud, which is also false. People who said they thought COVID-19 was a hoax were also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories in general.

On the basis of their findings, researchers from The Ohio State University have presented the “gateway conspiracy” hypothesis, which contends that conspiracy theory ideas sparked by a single incident lead to an increase in conspiratorial thinking over time.

Early evidence suggests that a feeling of mistrust may be one cause.

“It’s speculative, but it appears that once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it promotes distrust in institutions more generally – it could be government, science, the media, whatever,” says senior author Russell Fazio. “Once you start viewing events through that distrustful lens, it’s very easy to adopt additional conspiracy theories.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE today.

Young as a field of study, conspiracy theory research has thus far focused on identifying characteristics that predict the propensity to believe in conspiracy theories at a specific point in time.

“But if you read interviews or forums frequented by conspiracy theorists, you see a phenomenon where people tend to go down the rabbit hole after something happens in their life that triggers general interest in conspiracy theories,” adds first author Javier Granados Samayoa. “With COVID-19, there was this large event that people could not control, so how could they make sense of it? One way is by adhering to conspiracy theories.”

The researchers invited 501 participants in a June 2020 poll to answer questions about their views on COVID-19 conspiracy theories, political ideology, and what is known as conspiracist ideation, or one’s overall affinity for conspiracy theories. Participants in this section rated claims like “New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed” and “New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being planned or staged” on a 5-point scale from “definitely not true” to “definitely true.”

In a follow-up survey conducted six months later, in December 2020, the same 107 participants were asked to answer statements that probed their level of conspiratorial thinking. Researchers also looked at people’s ideas about conspiracies by asking them how much they thought there had been a lot of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Statistical analysis showed that people who thought the SARS-CoV-2 virus was released for bad reasons and that the severity of COVID-19 disease was exaggerated were also more likely to think that Trump stole the 2020 election. Additionally, six months later, COVID skeptics showed higher levels of general support for conspiracy theories than their pre-survey baseline in conspiracist ideation.

According to Granados Samayoa, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, the correlation remained even after accounting for the link between conservative political views and the belief in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and election fraud.

The researchers also provided evidence in support of the gateway plot from a sizable multi-part survey performed in the United Kingdom between early spring and late fall of 2020. The research team at Ohio State found that perception that the outbreak was a hoax among a nationally representative sample of UK individuals predicted increases in conspiracist ideation over time.

Even among people who initially had modest levels of conspiracist ideation, the Ohio State data revealed a clear tendency that may have contributed to the adoption of conspiracy theory views regarding the pandemic: financial hardship during the lockdown.

“And then there is the question: Once that happens, what changes over time? That’s where we got into this longitudinal work, which has been absent in previous research,” Fazio adds.

While some previous conspiracy theories have proven to be correct, this study focuses on beliefs that are not backed by evidence and are undermined by the data that does exist. The researchers noted that a deeper comprehension of the mechanisms underlying conspiratorial thinking could aid in halting the spread of conspiracist ideas, which are linked to a higher risk of violence, discrimination, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, among other detrimental effects on both the individual and the larger society.

“These findings show that we need to be prepared for any additional large-scale events similar to COVID-19 to stem off conspiracist ideation because once people go down the rabbit hole, they may get stuck,” Granados Samayoa adds.

Source: 10.1371/journal.pone.0275502

Image Credit: Getty

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