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Mon May 3, 2021, 10:47 PM

Patterns of Media Use, Strength of Belief in COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, and the Prevention of...

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"The media played a role in the promotion or reduction of conspiracy beliefs," said Dan Romer of @APPCPenn. "There were media sources that hindered the ability of the country to confront the pandemic.” New research:

Patterns of Media Use, Strength of Belief in COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, and the Prevention of...
Background: Holding conspiracy beliefs regarding the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been associated with reductions in both actions to prevent the spread of the infection (eg, mask...
1:01 PM · May 3, 2021


At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, various conspiracy theories about the origins and prevention of COVID-19 began to circulate on social media and some conservative media outlets [1-4]. The study of conspiracies as explanations for major events achieved notice in Hofstadter’s classic and influential 1966 volume The Paranoid Style in American Politics [5]. In his analysis, conspiracy beliefs presupposed a “vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of most fiendish character” [5]. Conspiracy beliefs, including those claiming the US government’s responsibility for the assassination of John F Kennedy and the 9/11 terrorist attack [6,7], have been a focus of study in the political science literature, which regards such beliefs as ones “in which the ultimate cause of an event is believed to be due to a plot by multiple actors working together with a clear goal in mind, often unlawfully and in secret” [8]. In psychology, the focus has been on understanding what draws individuals to conspiracies [7,9], while in public health, the concern has been about their role in minimizing the likelihood of preventive behavior [10], and their creation of unfounded fears of interventions such as fluoridation and vaccination [11]. As with all conspiracy theories, it is difficult to determine the validity of those related to COVID-19 because the putative actors work in secret [12]. Although stigmatized as paranoid by some [5], such beliefs have a surprising ability to attract adherents [6], and their influence has increasingly been observed in response to COVID-19 public health recommendations, such as vaccination and social distancing [13,14].

A notable characteristic of conspiracy beliefs is the tendency for belief in any one to be associated with acceptance of others [2,15-17]. In the United States, three such beliefs prevalent early in the pandemic [1,2,4] concerned suspicions that the pandemic was the result of malign actions by either the Chinese government or the pharmaceutical industry or that some in the US government were exaggerating the danger of COVID-19 to undermine the president of the United States. A national probability sample of the US population in March and again in July of 2020 [18] found that belief in any one of the conspiracies was highly related to belief in the others and that those beliefs were stable over time. Furthermore, belief in a composite of the three conspiracies in March predicted unwillingness in July to obtain a vaccine for the virus should one become available. The beliefs also predicted a lower likelihood of reporting wearing a face mask outside the home when exposed to other people [18]. Although belief in pandemic conspiracies increased from March to July 2020, our earlier analysis did not identify potential sources of that increase or their possible effects on preventive behavior.

Previous research has found that both misinformation [19] and conspiracy beliefs are resistant to change [6,7,20,21] and that holding conspiracy beliefs related to COVID-19 is associated with lower levels of behaviors known to prevent its spread [13,22]. In addition, single cross-sectional studies have found a positive relationship between social media use and COVID-19 misinformation [1] and conspiracy beliefs [14,23,24] and found that mainstream media consumption is associated with greater rejection of them [25,26]. However, such cross-sectional data cannot determine whether persistent use of these sources is related to change in these beliefs across time or whether efforts undertaken between the two surveys by media outlets to decrease the amount of conspiracy content about COVID-19–related topics is associated with a decrease in these beliefs.

Using a longitudinal study design, we tested the possibility that exposure to different types of media sources might be responsible for change in COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs in the United States. Where our earlier work found that conspiracy beliefs were positively related to use of social and conservative media and negatively related to use of mainstream television and print [18], we sought to determine whether those media sources were also associated with subsequent change in the strength of conspiracy beliefs from March to July 2020.


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