Conspiracy theories on COVID-19 origins outweigh influence of science, researchers say – Georgia State University News


ATLANTA – Exposure to conspiracy theories suggesting COVID-19 was man-made can have a powerful impact on a person’s beliefs, outweighing the influence of scientific messages and reducing their willingness to act to reduce the spread of the disease, according to new research at Georgia State University.

A single exposure to the conspiracy rhetoric about the origin of COVID-19, alone or in competition with the natural or “zoonotic” scientific explanation, results in a “conspiracy effect” in which individuals become less likely to see actions such as wearing face masks, frequent hand washing and social distancing if necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Researchers Toby Bolsen, Risa Palm and Justin Kingsland randomly interviewed 1,074 respondents over a five-day period from late April to early May. These topics were exposed in an article formatted to mimic a report on the origin of COVID-19, each varying in title and content. Thirty-three percent identified as Republicans, 40 percent as Democrats, and 27 percent as independents.

People who only read the scientific article, when interviewed later, were more likely to believe that the virus came naturally from zoonotic (bat) transmission. They also expressed their increased support for additional funding for biomedical research to identify harmful coronaviruses. Those who read the article suggesting that COVID-19 was created in a lab by the Chinese government, as well as those who read both versions, were more willing to penalize China. Their intentions to practice necessary public health and safety measures were also reduced.

“Conspiracy rhetoric can have a profound impact and dominate scientific information,” Palm said. “In today’s media environment, where individuals may be repeatedly exposed to conspiracy messages, our results may in fact underestimate the effects of that exposure.”

“It is important to consider how repeated exposure to conspiracy theories can influence associated beliefs in contexts that more accurately mimic the real-world information environment,” Bolsen said. “This would provide the opportunity to assess the persistence of the effects of scientific and conspiracy messages on the public.”

The epidemic of disinformation accompanying the spread of COVID-19 has eroded trust in science and misled individuals about the most effective precautions they can take to quell the virus and ensure safety, the authors conclude.

“It is urgent that, as we seek to control the spread of this virus and future viruses, we find ways to combat deceptive and damaging conspiracy rhetoric,” Palm said.

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