Researching COVID-19 conspiracy theories: Who believes in them and how do they affect behavior

13. September 2022.

In terms of socioeconomic indicators, younger people, especially those aged 25-29, who are less educated, from larger households with lower incomes, and from smaller towns, are somewhat more inclined to believe in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In addition to being on average more inclined to believe in other conspiracy theories, they also show lower trust in science, a preference for right-wing populist attitudes and religiosity, lower scientific and political literacy, as well as being less inclined towards critical thought - all results of a survey conducted between April 29th and May 17th 2022 on a nationally representative sample, consisting of 1,401 adult participants between the ages of 18 and 64, as part of the multidisciplinary project "Pro-fact: Exposing COVID-19 disinformation narratives in Croatia through research, fact-checking and education".

Almost 50% of respondents agreed with the conspiracy that "statistics are being manipulated to exaggerate mortality from COVID-19, by including people who died from other diseases".

Belief in conspiracies about COVID-19 is related to belief in various other conspiracies, which have nothing to do with the pandemic in terms of content, said Andrea Vranić, a professor from the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, while summarizing the research results.

"The observed link between the belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and the possession of a conspiratorial "state of siege mentality", i.e. the tendency to believe that one's own nation is threatened by internal and external enemies in an unpredictable globalized world, is important. Such persons will be more inclined to find links between unrelated events and assume the existence of a hidden, conspiratorial activity that connects them", explained the research coordinator, professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, Nebojša Blanuša.

Professor Blanuša warns that this way of thinking has significant anti-democratic potential, and reflects a simplified black-and-white view of the world, intolerance towards different opinions and people, and a considerable tendency towards protest behavior.

"The fact that people tend to believe in conspiracies about COVID-19 and are more willing to act against the proposed and introduced protective measures also speaks of the fact that the tendency towards conspiracy thinking related to COVID-19 is not a negligible problem, since it has an effect on behavior. Also, conspiracy prone citizens consider the measures unjustified more often, while also having a harder time bearing the consequences of the measures, and they are less willing to vaccinate in the future, if it would be recommended," warned Mirjana Tonković, associate at Pro-fact, professor from the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb.

"Indirectly, these results show to us what needs to be improved in society. In addition to social justice, scientific, political and media literacy of citizens is necessary, scientists should communicate more responsibly, while the mainstream media, with their bombastic headlines, gave people reason to believe more easily in conspiracy theories", professor Blanuša concluded.

"In addition to the survey, research was also previously conducted on the mapping of disinformation actors, the spread of disinformation narratives over time, and the content of disinformation groups and pages on Facebook, as part of the Pro-fact project. This project is not only focused on research, as it also has its informative and educational components. Gong takes research findings down to a practical level and applies them in its media and political literacy programs," announced Svjetlana Knežević from Gong.

Pro-fact aims to comprehensive approach to the social, political and health problem of the spread of COVID-19 disinformation campaigns through research, raising awareness and strengthening the capacity of journalists and citizens. Gong, as the project leader, collaborates with its partners, the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, University of Dubrovnik, Faktograf, Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, as well as associates Croatian Journalists' Association (HND) and the Union of Croatian Journalists (SNH).

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Foto Hina/ Dario GRZELJ
Foto Hina/ Dario GRZELJ
Foto Hina/ Dario GRZELJ
Foto Hina/ Dario GRZELJ
Foto Hina/ Dario GRZELJ
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