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COVID-19 conspiracy theories erode belief safely measures

November 16, 2020
A new study shows that simply reading in regards to a COVID-19 conspiracy theory can make people much more likely to ignore scientific evidence and less likely to assume that preventive actions, such as for example wearing a face covering, are necessary.

About 3 centuries ago, the writer Jonathan Swift wrote: “Falsehood flies, and the reality comes limping after it.” According to the new analysis, falsehood flies as fast as ever in our own, supposedly scientific moments.

The study found that it was simple to sway people’s opinions by asking them to learn articles claiming that COVID-19 started in a bioweapons laboratory in China.

In March 2020, Medical News Today reported the findings of a genetic sequencing study showing that the new coronavirus had not been artificially created. More analysis used, suggesting that the probably source was bats.

Despite growing scientific evidence of the virus’s natural origins, a survey discovered that belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories increased between March and July 2020.

The new study, which appears in the journal Science Communication, suggests that simply reading about such a theory will do to sway many people.

The researchers define a conspiracy theory as “an effort to make clear some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who try to conceal their role.”

“Conspiracy rhetoric may have a profound affect and overpower scientific data,” says author Risa Palm of Georgia State University in Atlanta. “In today’s media environment, where individuals may be repeatedly subjected to conspiracy messages, our results may actually understate the results of the exposure.”

Belief found in conspiracy theories - for instance, those about vaccination - can experience practical consequences.

The new study discovered that reading about COVID-19 originating in a Chinese laboratory built some readers less inclined to endorse preventive measures, such as for example face coverings, frequent hands washing, and physical distancing.

“It really is urgent that mainly because we seek to control the spread of this and potential viruses, we develop ways to combat misleading and damaging conspiracy rhetoric,” says Palm.

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The researchers recruited 1,071 volunteers through the web crowdsourcing program Amazon Mechanical Turk. Overall, 33% of the respondents determined as Republicans, 27% as Independents, and 40% as Democrats. The sample was 45% female and 55% male.

The scientists randomly assigned each participant to 1 of four experimental conditions.

The first group, who acted as the control group, did not read articles before giving an answer to the survey.

Each of the additional three groups read a good different article that the authors had headlined and formatted to appear to be a news story.

The first described scientific evidence that the virus started in bats, as the second described a conspiracy theory about the origin of the virus. The 3rd article gave equal excess fat to both perspectives.

The natural origins article, entitled “Coronavirus started in animals and jumped to humans,” included the next statements:

“Various infectious diseases are ‘zoonotic.’ This implies they begin in animals but jump to humans … That is true of the COVID-19 virus that genetic sequencing has demonstrated started in bats and was normally transmitted to humans.”

“Coronavirus originated in a good Chinese laboratory,” was the heading of the second article, which explained that:

“Many U.S. intelligence officials and scientists believe that the coronavirus originated from an accidental leak at a study laboratory situated in Wuhan, China … about 300 yards from industry where some claim the virus started out.”

The “balanced” article, entitled “Did the coronavirus originate in a Chinese laboratory or naturally in animals?,” began:

“There's been a debate among scientists and others about the origins of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Some have explained that like other ‘zoonotic’ or animal-established viruses, it originated in an animal species and jumped to humans … Others argue that the coronavirus originated from an accidental leak at a study laboratory in Wuhan, China.”

The survey assessed the respondents’ beliefs about the origins of the virus and whether China ought to be penalized. It also evaluated their level of support both for more research funding to recognize harmful coronaviruses and for public health insurance and safety measures.

Of all groups, the people who browse the science-based article were probably to believe the virus started in bats. They also expressed extra support for extra exploration funding to recognize harmful coronaviruses.

In contrast, those who read either the conspiracy theory article or the balanced article were additional ready to penalize China legally and financially.

Crucially, they were less ready to practice preventive measures, such as for example wearing face coverings, often washing the hands, and practicing physical distancing.

The researchers conclude:

“It really is urgent that as we seek to regulate the spread of the virus and anticipate methods to control and suppress future similar viruses, we develop methods to combat misleading and damaging conspiracy rhetoric.”

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