Never Let a Crisis or Conspiracy Theories Go to Waste
Over at The Atlantic, Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders take to polling some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Coronavirus, and the results may surprise you:
Mainstream coronavirus conspiracy theories come in two varieties: those that doubt the virus’s severity and those that suggest it might be a bioweapon. The former was endorsed by President Trump, who, early in the pandemic, referred to the virus as the Democrats’ “new hoax.” Even though he has taken the virus more seriously since mid-March, he has yet to explicitly condemn the idea that the threat of the virus has been exaggerated, or to encourage like-minded partisans in government and media to take it seriously. Indeed, conservative-media personalities continue to cast doubt on the reality of the pandemic, even as the death toll rises. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, suggested that our public-health officials are deep-state operatives and might not even be health experts. Some conservative commentators have pushed the theory that our hospitals aren’t actually treating any COVID-19 patients, going so far as to encourage people to stake out local hospitals and film the number of patients going in and out.
The second type of coronavirus conspiracy theory claims that the virus was intentionally disseminated by foreign powers, such as China or Russia, or by billionaire philanthropists such as George Soros and Bill Gates: Maybe China created or was working with this strain of coronavirus in a laboratory, and that the virus escaped by accident, or maybe Gates and the World Health Organization are at work on some nefarious plot to “control, and rule the world” with vaccines. A particularly disruptive version of this conspiracy theory connects the virus to 5G technology; it has driven believers to damage cell towers across Europe in recent weeks.
To see how much traction these two central variants of coronavirus conspiracy theories were receiving in the earlier stages of the pandemic, we polled a representative sample of 2,023 Americans from March 17 to 19 about their beliefs in these and many other conspiracy theories. We also asked survey respondents about their party affiliation and ideological leanings, as well as questions designed to capture relevant worldviews.
Because the pandemic, and reactions from federal and state governments, continues to evolve, we must note that our results are but a single snapshot of what we expect to be a lengthy timeline. That said, conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 were likely more influential at the outset of the pandemic, when our survey was conducted, and when social distancing, hand-washing, and other preventive measures—the types of behaviors discouraged by conspiracy beliefs—had the greatest potential to mitigate the spread of the virus. For that reason, our results are instructive for understanding the maximum impact of coronavirus conspiracy beliefs.
Almost everyone told us that they believe in one of the 22 conspiracy theories we asked about. In fact, only 9 percent of respondents didn’t express some level of agreement with any of the 22. Fifty-four percent believe that the “1 percent” of the wealthiest Americans secretly control the government; 50 percent believe that billionaire Jeffrey Epstein was murdered to conceal his activities; 45 percent believe that the dangers of genetically modified foods are being hidden from the public; and 43 percent believe that an extrajudicial deep state is secretly embedded in our government. Partisan conspiracy theories—those that explicitly accuse members of one party of conspiring—also have strong support. Thirty-seven percent of Americans believe that Trump colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election and that Trump is a Russian asset. Twenty-eight percent believe that Hillary Clinton provided Russia with nuclear materials, and 20 percent still believe that Barack Obama faked his citizenship to illegally usurp the presidency.