Most of us know people who believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories: that the pandemic’s severity was exaggerated, or it was deliberately released for sinister reasons.
But a new study has shown that believing such theories can be a ‘gateway’ to belief in more dangerous conspiracy theories – such as the baseless assertion that the US election was ‘stolen’ in 2020.
A study by Ohio State University found that people who believed in COVID conspiracy theories were more likely to believe in the ‘stolen election’ theory and in conspiracy theories more generally.
The researchers suggest a “gateway conspiracy” hypothesis, where conspiracy theory beliefs prompted by a single event lead to increases in conspiratorial thinking over time.
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Senior author Russell Fazio, professor of psychology at Ohio State, said: “It’s speculative, but it appears that once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it promotes distrust in institutions more generally – it could be government, science, the media, whatever.
“Once you start viewing events through that distrustful lens, it’s very easy to adopt additional conspiracy theories.”
Javier Granados Samayoa, who completed the work while a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State, said: “But if you read interviews or forums frequented by conspiracy theorists, you see a phenomenon where people tend to go down the rabbit hole after something happens in their life that triggers general interest in conspiracy theories.
“With COVID-19, there was this large event that people could not control, so how could they make sense of it? One way is by adhering to conspiracy theories.”
The researchers asked 501 participants in a June 2020 survey to answer questions assessing their beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, political ideology and what is called conspiracist ideation, or one’s overall affinity for conspiracy theories.
Participants used a five-point scale ranging from “definitely not true” to “definitely true” to rate statements such as “Some UFO sightings and rumours are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact” and “New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed”.
In December 2020, the researchers further assessed conspiracist ideation by asking participants to report the extent to which they believed that there had been extensive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Statistical analysis showed that participants who reported greater belief that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was released for dark purposes and that the severity of COVID-19 disease was blown out of proportion also reported greater belief that the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump.
COVID sceptics had higher levels of general endorsement of conspiracy theories six months later.
The association held true even after the analysis took into account the association between belief in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and voter fraud and conservative political views, said Granados Samayoa, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.
The team also cited data from a large UK multi-part survey conducted during the early spring and late fall of 2020 that supported the gateway conspiracy hypothesi.
The Ohio State team’s analysis showed that belief among a nationally representative sample of UK adults that the pandemic was a hoax predicted increases in conspiracist ideation over time.
Data from the survey suggested that financial distress during the lockdown could have been a factor in adopting conspiracy theory beliefs about the pandemic – even among those who started off with low levels of conspiracist ideation.
Granados Samayoa said, “These findings show that we need to be prepared for any additional large-scale events similar to COVID-19 to stem off conspiracist ideation because once people go down the rabbit hole, they may get stuck."
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