This is the first of two posts on how conspiracy theories and misinformation, often spread by social media, are affecting the course of the COVID Pandemic.
I previously made the point that social media platforms can provide an invaluable means of spreading useful public health information about the coronavirus crisis. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also generated a variety of bizarre beliefs, and these have spread throughout the World, largely through social media. Social media services have also allowed individuals to denigrate effective measures, such as social distancing, and to promote totally ineffective coronavirus “cures”.
The Oxford Study:
I was astounded to read in the Independent newspaper recently that a study by Oxford University called the Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey has shown that 21% of the 2,500 adults interviewed believe that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax! The team of psychologists also found that 59% of those questioned believe, to some extent, that the government is misleading the public about the origin of the virus, 62% agreeing that, to some extent, SARS-CoV-2 is man-made.
When asked whether they believed that coronavirus is a bio-weapon developed by China to destroy the West, 55 per cent said they did not agree, 20.2 per cent said they agreed a little and 5.5 per cent agreed completely. At least 79 per cent said they did not agree that coronavirus symptoms are caused by 5G radiation!
Researchers found that approximately 50 per cent of the group studied showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, while 25 per cent showed a degree of endorsement, 15 per cent showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10 per cent had very high levels of endorsement.
“Such ideas were associated with paranoia, general vaccination conspiracy beliefs, climate change conspiracy belief, a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions,” the scientists wrote in the journal Psychological Medicine. Worryingly, “Holding coronavirus conspiracy beliefs was also associated with being more likely to share opinions.”
These findings are significant because higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all Government guidelines, and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests, or to be vaccinated.
The King’s College Paper:
The full name of this paper is “Health-protective behaviour, social media usage and conspiracy belief during the COVID-19 public health emergency”. It actually examined the results of three questionnaire surveys with 949, 2250 and 2254 patients respectively.
All three studies found a negative relationship between COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and COVID-19 health-protective behaviours, and a positive relationship between COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and use of social media as a source of information about COVID-19. Studies 2 and 3 also found a negative relationship between COVID-19 health-protective behaviours and use of social media as a source of information, and Study 3 found a positive relationship between health-protective behaviours and use of broadcast media as a source of information.
Hence, people who believed things like SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t exist; that it was created in a laboratory; that the number of deaths due to the virus is being deliberately exaggerated; or that symptoms attributed to the virus are actually due to radiation from 5G networks were less likely to follow recommended public health measures. They were also more likely to have got their information from YouTube and Facebook than from traditional media.
The authors make the point that in the UK broadcast media are subject to official regulation and many print media platforms are subject to voluntary regulation, whereas social media platforms are almost totally unregulated.
Now that some of the lockdown rules are being relaxed in the UK, people will have to make more and more of their own decisions about what is safe or unsafe, making access to high quality information about COVID-19 more important than ever. If a significant proportion of people believe in strange conspiracy theories, and are getting their information from unreliable sources on social media platforms, it is perhaps not surprising that they don’t behave as more sensible people, and the Government, expect them to!