Conspiracy Theorists in Denial About Coronavirus Threat, UM Professor Says

About 30 percent believed the effects of the virus were exaggerated to hurt Donald Trump's presidency.
About 30 percent believed the effects of the virus were exaggerated to hurt Donald Trump's presidency. Photo by Tim/Flickr
When it comes to conspiracy theories, it's pretty wild what some people believe — and what they don't.

Those who doubted the Sandy Hook Elementary and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shootings have called the survivors "crisis actors" and tormented the families of those killed. A North Carolina man who believed online theories about a Washington, D.C., pizza place acting as a front for a child-sex ring opened fire inside the restaurant in 2016. (No one was hurt.)

And there are plenty of people in the United States who don't believe the coronavirus pandemic is real, according to a survey conducted by Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor who's been studying conspiracy theories for about a decade.

The survey, which sampled 2,000 people nationally in the third week of March, asked two pandemic-related questions, among others: Do you believe the effects of the virus were exaggerated to hurt the presidency of Donald Trump? And do you believe the virus was purposefully created and spread?

Uscinski tells New Times about a third of respondents said yes to each question.

"It's sort of shocking," he says. "Thirty percent is sort of a high number for something like this."

Uscinski says 20 percent is typical for questions related to medical or scientific conspiracy theories.

"We have essentially one news story — the coronavirus," he says. "It's the only thing we're paying attention to. People are feeling uncertainty and powerlessness. On the one hand, the numbers are high. On the other hand, given the circumstances, you might say it's low."

Based on some of the demographic information respondents provided, Uscinski says the people likeliest to believe those theories are Republicans.

"In particular, people who really like President Trump," he says. "And that makes perfect sense because that was the early messaging from the president about the virus, that this was just the Democrats' new hoax."

Uscinski says that although the study surveyed a representative sample of Americans, age wasn't a strong factor in a person's belief in conspiracy theories about the pandemic. The significant factors, he says, were partisanship, worldview, and a "predisposition toward conspiracy thinking," which leads to the rejection of medical and scientific findings.

People who reject such findings related to COVID-19, for example, might not wash their hands, wear masks, or practice social distancing as directed, the professor says.

"Another concern is that people who think [COVID-19] is a bioweapon might act as another extreme," Uscinski says. "They may begin hoarding essential goods because they think that some entity is trying to kill them."

As seen during last weekend's protests against lockdowns in various states, sometimes there's no balance to be struck between public health and what some people view as austere governmental interference.

"I'm sure a lot of those people think that the government measures are going overboard compared to the actual dangers," Uscinski says. "I think the governments have exerted a massive control over people's lives in a short time. While some of it may seem like the right thing, shutting down the economy and taking away livelihoods are fairly strong measures coming from governments. And it shouldn't shock anyone that there's going to be some pushback."

He believes governments should evaluate and reevaluate their safety measures regularly because the policies being created now aren't just about the pandemic — they have a ripple effect on people's lives and livelihoods.

As for the nonbelievers, there might not be much hope in reaching someone who doesn't trust medical and scientific officials.

"For some people, there's just not going to be a way to reach them," Uscinski says. "This is a question social scientists have been working on. How do we correct their incorrect beliefs? There's no easy way to do it. There is no silver bullet. People believe what they want to believe. I'm sure you've been to Thanksgiving."

Still, the professor's advice for the people who don't want to listen is to try to listen.

For those interested in learning more about the research, Uscinsky will offer a Zoom seminar about the survey and findings today at 5:30 p.m.
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Alexi C. Cardona is a former staff writer at Miami New Times.