Popular COVID-19 conspiracies linked to vaccine 'hesitancy'

A new study of beliefs and attitudes toward COVID-19 in five different countries - UK, US, Ireland, Mexico and Spain - has identified how much traction some prominent conspiracy theories have within these populations.

The research reveals 'key predictors' for susceptibility to fake pandemic news, and finds that a small increase in the perceived reliability of conspiracies equates to a larger drop in the intention to get vaccinated.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge gathered data from national samples in each country, and asked participants to rate the reliability of several statements, including six popular myths about COVID-19.

While a large majority of people in all five nations judged the misinformation to be unreliable, researchers found that certain conspiracy theories have taken root in significant portions of the population.

The conspiracy deemed most valid across the board was the claim that COVID-19 was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. Between 22-23% of respondents in the UK and United States rated this assertion as "reliable". In Ireland this rose to 26%, while in Mexico and Spain it jumped to 33% and 37% respectively.

This was followed by the idea that the pandemic is "part of a plot to enforce global vaccination", with 22% of the Mexican population rating this as reliable, along with 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK.

The notorious 5G conspiracy - that some telecommunication towers are worsening COVID-19 symptoms - holds sway over smaller but still significant segments: 16% in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US. The study is published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

"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.

"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."

Earlier this week, the Social Decision-Making Lab launched a project with the UK Cabinet Office: Go Viral!, a short online game that helps 'inoculate' players against fake news by lifting the lid on common misinformation techniques.

For the new study, the team - including Cambridge's Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication - looked at correlations between certain beliefs and demographic categories and the perceived reliability of misinformation.

Scoring highly on a series of numeracy tasks given as part of the study, as well as declaring high levels of trust in scientists, are 'significantly and consistently' associated with low levels of susceptibility to false information across all nations.

"Numeracy skills are the most significant predictor of resistance to misinformation that we found," 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."

Moreover, and despite 'boomer' memes, the team found that being older is actually linked to lower susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation in all nations except Mexico (where the opposite is true).

Identifying as more right-wing or politically conservative is associated with higher likelihood of believing COVID-19 conspiracies and falsehoods in Ireland, Mexico and Spain - but less so in the UK or US.

Trusting that politicians can effectively tackle the crisis predicts higher likelihood of buying into conspiracies in Mexico, Spain and the US, but not in the UK and Ireland. Exposure to information about the virus on social media is linked to misinformation susceptibility in Ireland, the UK and US.

Researchers asked participants about their attitude to a future coronavirus vaccine. They were also asked to rate the reliability of conspiratorial COVID-19 claims on a scale of one to seven.

On average, an increase by one-seventh in someone’s perceived reliability of misinformation is associated with a drop of almost a quarter - 23% - in the likelihood they will agree to get vaccinated.

Similarly, a one-point increase on the conspiracy reliability scale is linked, on average, to a 28% decrease in the odds of someone recommending vaccination to vulnerable friends and family.

Conversely, on average, a one-seventh increase in trust in scientists is associated with a 73% increase in the likelihood of getting vaccinated and a 79% increase in the odds of recommending vaccination to others.

The researchers controlled for many other factors - from age to politics - when modelling levels of 'vaccine hesitancy', and found the results to be consistent across all countries except Spain.

Jon Roozenbeek, Claudia R Schneider, Sarah Dryhurst, John Kerr, Alexandra LJ Freeman, Gabriel Recchia, Anne Marthe van der Bles, Sander van der Linden.
Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world.
R. Soc. Open Sci., 2020, doi: 10.1098/rsos.201199

Most Popular Now

Johnson & Johnson announces advance purchase a…

Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ) (the Company), has entered into an agreement with the African Vacci...

Pfizer and BioNTech confirm high efficacy and no s…

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX) announced updated topline results from analysis of 927 confirmed symptomatic cases of COVID-19 observed in their pi...

Pfizer-BioNTech announce positive topline results …

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX) today announced that, in a Phase 3 trial in adolescents 12 to 15 years of age with or without prior evidence of SAR...

GSK to support manufacture of Novavax' COVID-19 va…

GSK has reached an agreement in principle with Novavax and the UK Government Vaccines Taskforce to support manufacturing of up to 60 million doses of Novavax' COVID-19 va...

Valneva reports positive Phase 1/2 data for its in…

Valneva SE, a specialty vaccine company focused on the development and commercialization of prophylactic vaccines for infectious diseases with significant unmet medical n...

Clinical trial completion rates decline during COV…

Social distancing and lockdowns may have reduced the spread of COVID-19, but researchers from Penn State College of Medicine also report those actions may have affected c...

BioNTech provides update on vaccine production sta…

BioNTech SE today announced that the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the manufacturing of the COVID-19 vaccine drug product at the facility in Marburg. As part o...

COVID-19 convalescent plasma with greater antibody…

Convalescent plasma, the use of survivors' antibodies transfused into sick COVID-19 patients is safe and significantly improves clinical outcomes when using high levels o...

Pfizer and BioNTech request regulatory agencies ex…

Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) and BioNTech SE (Nasdaq: BNTX) today requested amendments to the U.S. Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (BNT162b2) ...

Study identifies possible COVID-19 drugs - includi…

A team led by scientists in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has identified nine potential new COVID-19 treatments, including three that ...

COVID-19 causes 'unexpected' cellular response in …

New insights into the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infections could bring better treatments for COVID-19 cases. An international team of researchers unexpectedly foun...

Undetected coronavirus variant was in at least 15 …

A highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 variant was unknowingly spreading for months in the United States by October 2020, according to a new study from researchers with The Unive...