Conspiracy theories are not a new thing. We have seen them all over the years, from those who honestly believe the Earth is flat and would do anything to prove it, to those that have started a conspiracy that the current pandemic is propaganda and an opportunity for Bill Gates to micro-chip the world.
Now, a new study by King’s College London has found that individuals that believe in these conspiracy theories about the pandemic were much less likely to want to receive the COVID-19 vaccine – something that is really important in achieving herd immunity within a population. Furthermore, the study found that social media had an important role to play in this outcome too.
The research, carried out at the University of Bristol and King’s College London, surveyed 4,860 UK adults between the ages of 18-75 during a month-long period from November 21 to December 22, 2020.
The survey results revealed various interesting statistical links between those that have conspiracy suspicions about that pandemic and their willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine. The findings also illustrated that this outcome was more common in certain groups – such as between different ethnicities – as well as a link between where people generally tend to get their information from online.
“Willingness to report agreement with conspiracy suspicions and beliefs is related to low trust in traditional authority sources – to the point that it constitutes a threat to public health. This is a real challenge for the campaign to ensure the highest possible Covid-19 vaccination rates," stated Dr Siobhan McAndrew, senior lecturer in quantitative social science at the University of Bristol in a press release.
"A high proportion of the public have been exposed to content that undermines trust in coronavirus vaccines and public health measures, often content intentionally tailored to the fears and concerns of vulnerable groups. Such narratives undermining trust are widely and rapidly disseminated online. This is of urgent importance for public health communicators and social media companies alike, to ensure that positive, accurate and relevant messaging reaches the groups who need it most.”
The survey indicated 15% of the UK public agreed that "reporters, scientists, and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about coronavirus", this percentage increased to 42% in people who said they were unlikely or definitely sure they won't be getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
27% of the UK public believed “the real truth about coronavirus is being kept from the public”, this percentage increased to 64% of those in the vaccine-hesitant reporting group.
21% of the UK public believed “an impartial, independent investigation of coronavirus would show once and for all that we’ve been lied to on a massive scale”, this percentage rose to 51% of those in the vaccine-hesitant reporting group.
“While some beliefs might seem outlandish, conspiracy suspicions are far from harmless speculation – especially in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Our findings show that although conspiracy thinking is limited to a minority of the population – something which is important to emphasise – levels of belief are particularly high among certain groups, such as the vaccine-hesitant. Addressing this mix of underlying beliefs, misleading information and harmful behaviour is a key public health challenge.” said Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London.
The research also reported differences between ethnic groups. 25% of people from BAME groups believed that “the only reason a coronavirus vaccine is being developed is to make money for pharmaceutical companies”, whereas that belief was only held among 13% of white people that took part in the study.
Another important consideration was social media platforms. Overall, 15% of the public thought that “reporters, scientists, and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about coronavirus”. That belief was much more popular in individuals that used certain platforms such as DuckDuckGo (50%), Instagram (43%), WhatsApp (40%), YouTube (37%), Bing (34%), Facebook (31%), and Twitter (29%).
"Social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram have begun to take action on viral misinformation, but our findings suggest that they still haven’t done enough to solve this very real problem.” said Dr Daniel Allington, senior lecturer in social and cultural artificial intelligence at King’s College London.
Conspiracy theories and vaccine hesitancy remain a serious hurdle to overcome during this pandemic – as a recent study has highlighted, more than a third of people in the US say they either unlikely or hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine. It might be that some people might be more prone to believing conspiracy theories, as a neuroscientist recently highlighted. However, more needs to be done to prevent misinformation on social media platforms, and more initiatives to help educate the public should be a priority.
For more information about COVID-19, check out the IFLScience COVID-19 hub where you can follow the current state of the pandemic, the progress of vaccine development, and further insights into the disease.