COVID Conspiracy Beliefs, Social Media and Risky Health Behavior
New research dives deep into mistrust, media misinformation sources, and the impact on health behaviors.
More than anything in recent memory, this pandemic highlights the importance of interdependence and community, on a global scale. If you don’t wear a seat belt, you are mostly only putting yourself at risk; if you don’t practice infection-control, you are putting me and mine at risk, along with your own family and friends, and their family and friends, and so on to the rest of society. The moral math is totally different when the truth is illusory.
Prior work on personality and conspiracy is unflattering. Conspiracy believers are likely to have higher “Bullshit Receptivity” [yes, psychologists have created a scale for that, the BRS], are more likely to see the world as a malign and dangerous place, and are more likely to eschew human contact, residing within an eccentric, idiosyncratic reality.
When it comes to COVID, conspiracy theories abound. According to Allington, Duffy, Wessely, Dhavan, and Rubin from King’s College, London, UK, authors of a recent study (2020) looking at predictors of risky COVID-related health behavioral, “[c]onspiracism is the tendency to assume that major public events are secretly orchestrated by powerful and malevolent entities acting in concert.” They point to prior work which shows that conspiracy beliefs track with reduced use of safer sex and vaccinations, and note similar trends in early COVID research.
While research studies show social media spreads misinformation, prior studies have left researchers with more questions than answers about which groups are most susceptible to these potentially deadly deceptions.
Putting the pieces together
In order to clarify the relationship among COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, the practice of health-related behaviors connected with the pandemic, social media use, and various demographic factors, they conducted a series of three studies with a total of over 5400 participants. Participants were on average in their late 30s to early 40s and represented a balance of UK men and women recruited to reflect a representative sample of the population.
The first study asked participants (949) about three conspiracy beliefs: that the novel coronavirus was created in a laboratory; that COVID-19 symptoms may be related to 5G cellphone networks; and that the pandemic was planned by some government agencies and drug companies. They asked them about COVID health-related behaviors including increased frequency of handwashing, maintaining 6 feet of social distance when outside the home, restricting social engagements to outdoors, going to work even when they might be sick, and having people visit them at home. Finally, they asked them how often they checked social media for COVID-related information.
In the second study, researchers focused on the conspiracy belief that coronavirus is laboratory-created. Respondents (2250) were asked about health-related behaviors and social media use.
In the final study, participants (2254) were asked about health-related behaviors, a broader range of conspiracies, and specific media platforms: TV and radio, newspapers and magazines (print and online), YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, and family and friends. Additional conspiracies included: that COVID deaths are exaggerated by the authorities; that the pandemic is a way to force people to get vaccines; and that there is no valid evidence coronavirus even exists.
While the results of each study differed slightly, all in all, their results were consistent and telling:
Conspiracy belief and risky behavior
- The belief that coronavirus came from a lab was the most common conspiracy theory.
- Holding conspiracy beliefs correlated very strongly with less safe, riskier health-protective behaviors.
- Various conspiracy beliefs impact health-protective behavior in different ways, while overall reducing them. For instance, in the third study, they found that doubting the existence of coronavirus, followed by believing deaths were exaggerated and then 5G, was strongly associated with risky behavior.
Information source and COVID-related factors
- Checking social media more often was associated with a decrease in two health-protective behaviors, and trends towards significance for other behaviors: avoiding socializing outside the home and staying home when people might be ill.
- People who used traditional media were less likely to believe in COVID conspiracy and more likely to practice health-protective behaviors. The effect was small but statistically meaningful, especially for TV and radio.
- There was a robust correlation between using social media platforms for COVID information and conspiracy theory beliefs, overall, and for each platform individually. YouTube, followed by Facebook, was associated most strongly with conspiracy theory beliefs.
- They found a strong association between using social media for COVID-related information and reduced self-protective behaviors (aside from handwashing, which people did regardless). The strongest effect was found for YouTube, WhatsApp, and the overall social media contribution.
- The was a small but statistically significant relationship between conspiracy beliefs and getting information from friends and family.
- Younger people were more likely to report conspiracy beliefs, while older people were more likely to report safer health behaviors.
- Women were more likely to practice health-protective behaviors than men.
- Controlling for age and gender revealed that conspiracy beliefs and types of media used remain powerful statistical predictors of reduced health-protective behavior and greater risky behavior in the third study, which took a granular look at different information channels.
A dangerous game
Overall, they found that social media serves to spread dangerous misinformation, amping up conspiracy theorizing in direct association with reduced health-protective behavior and increased risky behavior, place not only oneself in harm's way, but also others. YouTube, Facebook, and WhatsApp were more strongly associated with this socially-transmitted misinformation, whereas traditional media, especially TV and radio, were associated with older age and less risky belief and behavior.
Related research (2020), for example, shows that on Twitter, we get our information from celebrities and politicians more than health agencies. Importantly, the messages from health agencies were presented in negative language, in contrast with celebs and politicians with generally upbeat, optimistic messages, leading folks to tune out the public agencies — who might do well to revamp their messaging.
Understanding what psychological and environmental factors lead people to put themselves and others in harm’s way is both fascinating and timely. We live in unprecedented times, facing evolutionary challenges never before faced by humanity. Trapped within our increasing interdependence trapped, what will we individually and collectively do?
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