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Infectious Diseases

Updated 15 October 2020

Scientists looked at susceptibility to fake news – here are the top 3 Covid-19 conspiracies

The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a flood of harmful conspiracy theories, and one international study pinpoints the top three that people are most likely to believe.

  • Conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 virus have become widely popular around the world.
  • According to a recent survey, some are more widely believed than others,
  • Increasing digital media literacy in populations may work to combat certain conspiracies, the researchers said

The Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories so much so that leading tech companies, like Google and Facebook, have had to work hard to prevent this.

Now an international study by researchers from the University of Cambridge in England, has identified some prominent conspiracy theories that have gained traction among five different countries' populations: the UK, the US, Ireland, Mexico and Spain.

Their findings reveal the top three conspiracy theories as the following:

  • The Covid-19 virus was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory – this was deemed the most valid across the board.
  • The pandemic is "part of a plot to enforce global vaccination".
  • There is a 5G conspiracy that some wireless communications worsen Covid-19 symptoms.

The study was published this month in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

Survey results

For the study, the research team gathered data from national samples in each of the five countries and asked participants to rate the reliability of various statements, including six popular myths about Covid-19.

They found that while a large majority of participants surveyed in all five countries believed misinformation was unreliable, some conspiracy theories were believed by a significantly high proportion.

"In addition, a small group of participants find common factual information about the virus highly unreliable," they wrote.

In terms of the conspiracy that the virus was engineered in a laboratory, between 22-23% of respondents in the UK and US rated this assertion as "reliable". In Ireland this increased to 26%, while in Mexico and Spain it jumped to 33% and 37% respectively.

The idea that the Covid-19 pandemic is "part of a plot to enforce global vaccination" was believed by 22% of the Mexican population, who rated this as reliable, while 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK, felt the same way.

When modelling levels of "vaccine hesitancy", the researchers controlled for many other factors, including age and politics, and found the results to be consistent across all countries, except Spain.

A total of 16% participants in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US were found to believe the 5G conspiracy theory.

Clear link between conspiracies and vaccine hesitancy

"Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public. We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine," said Dr Sander van der Linden, co-author and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab in a news release by the university.

"As well as flagging false claims, governments and technology companies should explore ways to increase digital media literacy in the population. Otherwise, developing a working vaccine might not be enough."

Perhaps most concerning about the study's findings is that increased susceptibility to misinformation means that people are less likely to comply with public health guidance about Covid-19 and less willing to get vaccinated if and when a vaccination becomes available – which could be by the end of this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recently stated.

Looking at vaccine scepticism within a local context, Spotlight reported that, based on a recent global online survey, more than a third of South Africans would not want a Covid-19 vaccine once one becomes available. The survey also found that the distrust of vaccines in the country mirrors low confidence in public institutions.

Politically conservative individuals and conspiracies

Numeracy skills were also found to be the most significant predictor of resistance to misinformation, said Dr Jon Roozenbeek, lead author and postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge's Department of Psychology.

"We all now deal with a deluge of statistics and R number interpretations. The fostering of numerical skills for sifting through online information could well be vital for curbing the 'infodemic' and promoting good public health behaviour," he commented.

The team also found that being older was linked to lower susceptibility to Covid-19 misinformation in all nations, except Mexico (where the opposite is true). 

A link was also found between those identifying as more right wing or politically conservative and a higher likelihood of believing Covid-19 conspiracies and falsehoods in Ireland, Mexico, and Spain.

"Taken together, these results demonstrate a clear link between susceptibility to misinformation and both vaccine hesitancy and a reduced likelihood to comply with health guidance measures, and suggest that interventions which aim to improve critical thinking and trust in science may be a promising avenue for future research," the authors wrote.