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One in Five Believe there is a Government Conspiracy to Present COVID as ‘Much More Dangerous than It Really Is’

A new study provides evidence of the dangerous toll disinformation circulating on social media platforms can take on those suspicious of the Coronavirus crisis

Anti-mask protestors gather in Westminster. Photo: Thabo Jaiyesimi/SOPA Images/Sipa USA

One in Five Believe there is a Government Conspiracy to Present COVID as ‘Much More Dangerous than It Really Is’

A new study provides evidence of the dangerous toll disinformation circulating on social media platforms can take on those suspicious of the Coronavirus crisis

Those refusing to have the COVID-19 vaccine are likely to believe in conspiracy theories about the pandemic, with one in five people in the UK believing that “the authorities want us to think that Coronavirus is much more dangerous than it really is”, new research has found.

According to a study by the University of Bristol and King’s College London, 15% of the public believes that “reporters, scientists and Government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about Coronavirus”.

This figure almost tripled among those who said that they were unlikely to have the vaccine or definitely won’t be vaccinated against the virus. 

The belief was also twice as high among people from black and ethnic minority communities than it was among white Brits. 

And it was more prevalent amongst people who turn to social media platforms such as Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter for much of their information on the Coronavirus.

According to the study, those who rely on social media platforms for information were also more than twice as likely as both the overall population and those who rely on traditional media sources to say that they would probably be put off from getting the vaccine over concerns that it might overload their immune system.

The study also found that 27% of the public believe that “the real truth about Coronavirus is being kept from the public” – which rose to 64% among people who said they were unlikely to or definitely won’t get vaccinated against the virus.

Meanwhile 21% said they believe that “an impartial, independent investigation of Coronavirus would show once and for all that we’ve been lied to on a massive scale” – compared with 51% of the vaccine-hesitant who said the same.

People from black and ethnic minority communities (25%) were twice as likely as white people (13%) to report believing that “the only reason a Coronavirus vaccine is being developed is to make money for pharmaceutical companies”. They were also half as likely as white people to say that they would like to be vaccinated immediately.

Dr Siobhan McAndrew, senior lecturer in quantitative social science at the University of Bristol, said belief in conspiracy theories among a minority of the population presents “a real challenge for the campaign to ensure the highest possible COVID-19 vaccination rates”.

“Willingness to report agreement with conspiracy suspicions and beliefs is related to low trust in traditional authority sources – to the point that it constitutes a threat to public health,” she said.

“A high proportion of the public have been exposed to content that undermines trust in Coronavirus vaccines and public health measures, often content intentionally tailored to the fears and concerns of vulnerable groups.

“Such narratives undermining trust are widely and rapidly disseminated online. This is of urgent importance for public health communicators and social media companies alike to ensure that positive, accurate and relevant messaging reaches the groups who need it most.”

The study – based on the responses of 4,860 adults aged 18-75 – follows the death of Gary Matthews from COVID-19, whose family has said that his belief that the virus was a “hoax” killed him. 

The 46-year-old, who retweeted lockdown sceptics Julia Hartley-Brewer, Peter Hitchens and Mark Dolan on his Twitter profile, died alone in his flat on 13 January.

His cousin told the Guardian that he had pleaded with Matthews to wear a mask and maintain social distance “but he and his friends had the mindset that they needed to go out and meet people to show they didn’t believe the Government”.

One of the Twitter posts Matthews retweeted was by talkRADIO presenter Hartley-Brewer, who wrote: “Most people in the UK don’t know someone who’s died from Covid. Most people in the UK probably don’t know someone who’s been very ill with the virus. In a couple of weeks, EVERYBODY is going to know someone who’s lost their job or their business to the lockdown.”

He also liked a number of posts by Hitchens and retweeted one in which the right-wing Daily Mail columnist referred to masks as “muzzles”.

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