International Study Finds COVID-19 Conspiracies Linked to Vaccine Hesitancy

Study shows a small increase in the perceived reliability of COVID-19 conspiracies equates to a larger drop in the intention to get vaccinated.

A new study of beliefs and attitudes toward coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in 5 different countries—United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Mexico, and Spain—has identified how much traction some prominent conspiracy theories have within these populations.

The research, which highlights key predictors for susceptibility to fake pandemic news, found 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 6 popular myths about COVID-19.

The study authors found that certain conspiracy theories have taken root in significant portions of the population, while a large majority of people in all 5 nations judged the misinformation to be unreliable. The conspiracy considered to have the highest viability among the participants surveyed was the claim that COVID-19 was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory.

Approximately 22% to 23% of respondents in the UK and United States rated this assertion as “reliable,” increasing to 26% in Ireland, while Mexico and Spain saw a jump to 33% and 37%, respectively.

The next most believed conspiracy theory was the idea that the pandemic is “part of a plot to enforce global vaccination,” with 22% of Mexican participants rating this as reliable, along with 18% in Ireland, Spain, and the United States, and 13% in the UK.

The 5G conspiracy holds sway over smaller but still significant segments, with 16% of participants in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and United States.

“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 co-author Sander van der Linden, MD, director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab, in a press release. “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.”

For the new study, the authors examined 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 lead author Jon Roozenbeek, MD, postdoctoral fellow in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, in a press release. “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 behavior.”

Further, the study authors found that being older is linked to lower susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation in all nations except Mexico. Identifying as more right-wing or politically conservative is also associated with higher likelihood of believing COVID-19 conspiracies and falsehoods in Ireland, Mexico, and Spain, but less so in the UK or United States, according to the study authors.

The researchers asked participants about their attitude to a future COVID-19 vaccine and were asked to rate the reliability of conspiratorial COVID-19 claims on a scale of 1 to 7.

On average, an increase by one-seventh in someone’s perceived reliability of misinformation is associated with a drop of almost one-quarter in the likelihood they will agree to get vaccinated. Similarly, a 1-point increase on the conspiracy reliability scale was linked to an approximately 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 was associated with a 73% increase in the likelihood of getting vaccinated and a 79% increase in the odds of recommending vaccination to others, according to the study authors.

REFERENCE

Popular COVID-19 conspiracies linked to vaccine ‘hesitancy’. University of Cambridge. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/popular-covid-19-conspiracies-linked-to-vaccine-hesitancy. Published October 14, 2020. Accessed October 14, 2020.