A new study indicates that merely reading about the hypothesis of a COVID-19 conspiracy will make individuals more likely to disregard scientific evidence and less likely to believe that protective measures are appropriate, such as wearing a face covering.
The author Jonathan Swift wrote around 3 centuries ago: “Falsehood flies, and the reality limps after it According to the new report, falsehood flies in our own, supposedly scientific times, as quickly as ever.
The research found that it was easy to manipulate the views of people by asking them to read an article stating that COVID-19 originated in a laboratory for bioweapons in China.
Medical News Today announced the results of a genetic sequencing study in March 2020 that found that the new coronavirus was not produced artificially. More studies followed, indicating that bats were the most probable source.
Despite increasing scientific evidence of the natural origins of the virus, a survey found that between March and July 2020, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories increased.
The new research published in the journal Science Communication, indicates that it is enough to simply read about such a theory to sway many people.
A conspiracy theory is described by researchers as an attempt to explain some event or activity by reference to the machinations of powerful individuals who try to hide their position.”
“Conspiracy rhetoric can have a profound impact and overpower scientific information,” says author Risa Palm of Georgia State University in Atlanta. “Our results can potentially understate the impact of this exposure in today’s media climate, where individuals may be regularly subjected to conspiracy messages.”
Belief in conspiracy theories may have practical implications, such as those related to vaccines.
The new study found that some readers were less likely to support preventive steps, such as face coverings, regular hand washing, and physical distancing, when reading about COVID-19 from a Chinese laboratory.
“It is urgent that we come up with ways to tackle deceptive and destructive conspiracy rhetoric while we attempt to monitor the spread of this and potential viruses,” says Palm.
Alternative reports from the press
Using the online crowdsourcing site Amazon Mechanical Turk, the researchers recruited 1,071 volunteers. Overall, 33% of the respondents described themselves as Republicans, 27% as Independents, and 40% as Democrats. The sample was 45% female and 55% male.
Each participant was randomly allocated by the scientists to one of four experimental conditions.
Until responding to the survey, the first party, who served as the control group did not read a post.
In order to look like a news story, each of the other three groups read a different article that the authors had headlined and formatted.
The first presented scientific evidence that the virus originated in bats, while the second described a theory of conspiracy about the virus’ origin. Both viewpoints gave equal weight to the third post.
The article on natural origins, titled “Coronavirus developed in animals and jumped into humans,” contained the following statements:
“Many infectious diseases are ‘zoonotic.’ This means they start in animals but jump to humans … This is true of the COVID-19 virus that genetic sequencing has shown originated in bats and was naturally transmitted to humans.”
“Coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory,” was the heading of the second article, which stated that:
“Many U.S. intelligence officials and scientists believe that the coronavirus originated from an accidental leak at a research laboratory located in Wuhan, China … about 300 yards from the marketplace where some claim the virus started.”
The “balanced” article, entitled “Did the coronavirus originate in a Chinese laboratory or naturally in animals?,” began:
“There has been a debate among scientists and others about the origins of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). Some have said that like other ‘zoonotic’ or animal-based viruses, it originated in an animal species and jumped to humans … Others argue that the coronavirus originated from an accidental leak at a research laboratory in Wuhan, China.”
The survey analyzed the views of the respondents about the source of the virus and whether to penalize China. Their level of support was also measured, both for additional research funding for the detection of dangerous coronaviruses and for public health and safety initiatives.
Among all the groups, it was most likely that the people who read the science-based article assumed that the virus originated in bats. They also showed further enthusiasm for increased funding for research to detect damaging coronaviruses.
In comparison, those who read either the article on the conspiracy theory or the objective article were more likely to legally and financially penalize China.
Crucially, they were less likely to take protective steps, such as wearing face masks, washing their hands regularly, and physical distancing.
The researchers conclude:
“It is urgent that as we seek to control the spread of this virus and anticipate ways to control and suppress future similar viruses, we come up with ways to combat misleading and damaging conspiracy rhetoric.”
Limitations of the study
The study, which includes an artificial experimental setup, does not reflect the behaviors of people and how they act in the real world, in common with many social psychology studies.
This sample of respondents may also not be representative of the total population. It could be more likely that people who sign up for Amazon Mechanical Turk would have some pre-existing prejudices in their beliefs.
Another possible concern is the order in which information was given to readers in the balanced article. While it made the participants who read it aware of both claims due to this positioning, the claim that concluded the article could have had more weight.
This possible impact was not discussed by the researchers. However, two versions of the balanced article would have been easier to present: one that ended with the scientific claim and one that ended with the argument of conspiracy.