‘Surprisingly popular’: Survey shows alarming belief in COVID conspiracy theories

Victoria Police are seen in large numbers during a protest at the Shrine of Remembrance on October 23 in Melbourne. Source: Getty

A global survey has revealed a concerning number of Australians believe in coronavirus-related conspiracy theories.

A survey designed by The Guardian and YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found a high number of respondents across the world believe in COVID-19 conspiracies. 

These include the idea that COVID-19 doesn’t exist, it was created deliberately, or that the virus has killed fewer people than reported.

The survey also revealed significant anti-vaccination sentiment and that a disturbing number of people believe the world is run by an elite cabal.

The 2020 survey included responses from 26,000 people in 25 countries.

A man holds a QAnon conspiracy flag while walking over the All Black Lives Matter mural in Hollywood.
A man holds a QAnon conspiracy flag while walking over the All Black Lives Matter mural in Hollywood.

It found 18 percent of Australians believe COVID-19’s fatality rate had been exaggerated, compared to 60 percent of Nigerians, more than 40 percent of respondents in Greece, South Africa, Poland and Mexico and about 38 percent of Americans.

According to the survey, 32 percent of Australians claim coronavirus was deliberately created and spread by the Chinese Government, while 23 percent of Australians think it was developed by some powerful forces in the business world. 

One in five respondents in almost every country surveyed -- including 21 percent of Australians -- also expressed concern about the supposedly harmful effects of vaccines being kept under wraps.

The survey further revealed 33 percent of Australians are convinced a cabal of global elite is running the world, 13 percent think the moon landing was faked and 20 percent consider global warming a hoax.

‘Surprisingly popular’ 

Dr Adam Dunn is the Head of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at The University of Sydney.

He says while we often think of conspiracy theories as “existing on the fringes among a bunch of weirdos”, that’s not the case.

“Conspiracy belief can be surprisingly popular, so it’s not really a surprise to me that the survey found so many people were believing in conspiracy theories,” he told The Feed.

However, he said it’s important to distinguish myths from conspiracy theories.

“A conspiracy theory people believe is that the truth has been covered up by a powerful group,” he said.

“Myths might be like holding crystals or ingesting bleach or hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19 and all sorts of other things around related to masks, or the fact that COVID-19 was engineered in a lab.” 

Dr Dunn says research suggests if someone believes in a conspiracy theory, they're more likely to take up other conspiracy theories.

While Dr Robin Canniford, Senior Lecturer In Marketing at the University of Melbourne, says conspiracies are often developed during times of economic and political upheaval. 

“The first time we really started noticing the rise of a new kind of conspiracy theory, I think 911 was a key moment,” he told The Feed.

“Since then we've seen this questioning of political institutions and trustworthiness is really the key thing,” he said.

“Anytime when we've got fear and uncertainty, that's when there's this sort of space created for conspiracy theories.”

About 100 people in Melbourne protested lockdowns, vaccinations and 5G over the weekend against what they called the "coronavirus conspiracy".
About 100 people in Melbourne protested lockdowns, vaccinations and 5G against what they called the "coronavirus conspiracy".

Dr Canniford believes conspiracy theories can be “damaging” on a personal level, as well as having the potential to undermine the public’s trust in government institutions.

“On a personal level, if you go down this rabbit hole, it becomes very easy to believe that these people are telling the truth in their conspiracy theories, so that can cause a lot of anxiety,” he told The Feed.

“At the worst level, it can lead people to commit crimes. They might be quite mild crimes, perhaps vandalising a 5g mast, or it might be much more serious, like the gentleman in the US who walks into a pizza restaurant armed to the teeth because of this Pizzagate conspiracy.”

Dr Dunn believes the focus should be on consumers of conspiracy theories rather than those spreading misinformation who “represent a tiny proportion of the population”.

conspiracy theories
Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The real potential for harm, and the real area that we should be focusing on, is trying to empower individuals to be better at evaluating what they see online,” he told The Feed.

“I'm much more worried about the 20- 30 percent of people who could be persuaded not to vaccinate their kids. I'm much less worried about the 0.1 percent of the population who are actively passing along misinformation and trying to persuade people.”

The survey’s results come as a group of QAnon believers have announced they’ll be suing YouTube for banning their accounts. 

YouTube removed tens of thousands of QAnon channels in October after announcing it would “prohibit content that targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.”

Believers of the baseless QAnon conspiracy claim a global cabal is sex trafficking children and plotting against the presidency of Donald Trump.

The plaintiffs claimed in a press release on Tuesday that before they were removed, their accounts had amassed more than 800 million views combined.

“YouTube took this draconian action so swiftly that the Plaintiffs... received no advance notice and were not able to download their own content,” the press release alleged.

“Together they had more YouTube subscribers than many legacy news channels like C-SPAN, The New York Times and NBC News.”

One of the channels mentioned in the press release, The SGT Report, was previously suspended in 2018 after sharing a theory alleging Hillary Clinton terrorised a child, according to The Verge.

While another account, TRU Reporting, promoted Pizzagate theories and alleged children in Biden family were sex trafficking victims, the site reported.

In this May 14, 2020, file photo, a person carries a sign and wears a vest supporting QAnon at a protest in Olympia, Washington
In this May 14, 2020, file photo, a person carries a sign and wears a vest supporting QAnon at a protest in Olympia, Washington

Dr Canniford said for loved ones of conspiracy theorists, it can be “very difficult” to even attempt to falsify their beliefs.

“They begin to look for information that confirms their beliefs,” he said.

“It’s very similar to a psychological principle called 'the backfire effect', where we defend ourselves from information that's contrary to our beliefs,” he added.

Instead, he says, we need to “gently call people out” on their falsehoods. 

“We have to keep talking to our loved ones,” he said.

“It can be good to gently call people out or logically suggest that these theories are nonsense because if something is not falsifiable, then it doesn't stand up to scrutiny.”