ATLANTA–Exposure to conspiracy theories suggesting COVID-19 was human-engineered can have a powerful impact on a person’s beliefs, outweighing the influence of science-based messaging 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 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 view actions such as wearing face masks, frequent handwashing and social distancing as necessary to mitigating the virus’s spread.
Researchers Toby Bolsen, Risa Palm and Justin Kingsland randomly surveyed 1,074 respondents during a five-day period from late April to early May. These subjects were exposed to an article formatted to mimic a news story about the origin of COVID-19, each varying in headline and content. Thirty-three percent identified as Republicans, 40 percent as Democrats and 27 percent as Independents.
People who read only the science-based article, when questioned later, were more likely to believe the virus originated naturally from zoonotic (bat) transmission. They also expressed more support for additional biomedical research funding to identify harmful coronaviruses. Those who read the article suggesting 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 overpower scientific information,” said Palm. “In today’s media environment, where individuals may be repeatedly exposed to conspiracy messages, our findings may actually understate the effects of this exposure.”
“It is important to account for how repeated exposure to conspiracy theories may influence related beliefs in settings that more accurately mimic the real-world information environment,” Bolsen said. “This would provide an opportunity to assess the persistence of the effects of both scientific and conspiratorial messaging on audiences.”
The epidemic of misinformation 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 and future viruses, we come up with ways to combat misleading and damaging conspiracy rhetoric,” said Palm.
Urban Studies Institute
Risa Palm is an urban geographer and former Senior Vice President and Provost at Georgia State University. Her research interests are in urban geography and she has done extensive work on the topics of natural hazards responsiveness, urban housing, and urban impacts of global climate change. She has previously held tenured positions at the rank of professor in departments of geography at the University of Colorado, the University of Oregon, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Louisiana State University and SUNY Buffalo. Dr. Palm has published numerous books, monographs, and journal articles, and received research honors from the Association of American Geographers. She was President of the Association of American Geographers and has also served on the board of the American Geographical Society. She has served on several panels and committees for the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.