A new study in the journal Research & Politics provides evidence that populist attitudes are correlated with conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 in the United States. The findings indicate that populism — which pits “the people” against “the elites” — plays an even greater role than political partisanship.
“From the early days of the pandemic, political scientists and social scientists in general were trying to understand the dynamics of COVID-related attitudes and behaviors. A lot of that work has focused on partisanship, which is understandable, given the importance of partisanship as a social identity in the United States these days,” said study author Dominik A. Stecula (@decustecu), an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University.
“But at the same time, Mark Pickup (my co-author) and I were thinking that there is something else that is important, beyond the traditional left-right/Democrat-Republican divide. There has been a growing body of work on the importance of anti-intellectualism in shaping a lot of attitudes among Americans (notably the works of Matt Motta as well as Eric Merkley), and broader appeal of populist leaders across the world, in places like Hungary, Poland, Brazil, but also the United States with Donald Trump.”
“We thought that the populism, as a concept, is important because it is directly relevant to something like COVID-19, because it involves attitudes about science and elites. Populism is essentially a broad worldview that tends to pit ‘the people’ against ‘the elites,'” Stecula explained.
For their study, Stecula and Pickup used the research agency Lucid to survey 1,009 adult Americans during the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States. They found that nearly half of the participants somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “The Chinese government developed the coronavirus as a bioweapon” and 38% somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement “There is a vaccine for the coronavirus that national governments and pharmaceutical companies won’t release.”
“We collected our data in late March of 2020, and these were two of the dominant conspiracies at the time,” Stecula said.
After controlling for partisan affiliation, race, education, gender, household income and other factors, the researchers found that populist attitudes were strong predictors of believing in the two COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The researchers also found that these populist attitudes were “distributed fairly evenly” among Republicans and Democrats.
“Populism is found on the left and on the right, among Democrats and Republicans. When you read popular media accounts of populism in the US, it tends to center around Donald Trump on the political right. But there very much are populists on the left as well,” Stecula told PsyPost.
“In our paper, we identify two key dimensions of populism: the anti-elite dimension, and the anti-intellectual dimension. Republicans tend to score higher on the distrust of experts dimension of populism, while Democrats score higher on the anti-elite dimension.”
Conservative media consumption was also linked to COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, particularly among those high in populism. The researchers found that this was not limited to Republicans.
“We find that populist Democrats tend to consume conservative political news from outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, etc. We know from other research that these outlets disseminated a lot of COVID related misinformation, especially in the early days of the pandemic. This means that the influence of the conservative media is not limited to only Republicans who consume that content, but also populist Democrats,” Stecula said.
Moreover, those who believed that a COVID-19 vaccine was already in existence were less likely to engage in recommended behaviors to prevent the spread of the virus.
“We found that these conspiratorial beliefs are not harmless and have real-world consequences: those who believe the conspiracy theories about COVID-19 adapt less behaviors recommended by public health officials, such as social distancing or mask wearing,” Stecula remarked.
Believing that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon, however, was unrelated to engagement in public health behaviors, which “could be a result of the fact that the two conspiracy theories are very different in nature and likely trigger different considerations about the danger posed by the virus,” the researchers said.
The findings of the study are in line with concepts in political science that conceive of populism as a thin-centered ideology. In other words, “it attaches itself to other ideologies, because populism, in general, does not come with a set of comprehensive answers to political questions,” Stecula explained. “As such, you can have populists on the political left and on the political right, as is indeed the case based on our research.”
The findings are also in line with a study published in the European Journal of Public Health, which found a link between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and the belief that vaccines are not important and not effective.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“This is science, so we can always do better, especially surrounding a topic that has been so dynamic, such as COVID-19. This paper is based on the data collected in the early days of the pandemic. The amount of conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 has exploded after we’ve done our research, so we certainly could do more better mapping the determinants of these different conspiracy beliefs,” Stecula said.
“Another question is to what extent these relationships are universal. Given the global appeal of populist leaders, there are reasons to expect that populism might be an important factors shaping these attitudes and behaviors. We are collecting survey data in several countries right now trying to answer these questions. In terms of caveats, it’s worth acknowledging that this is survey work, and the news media measures we collect are self-reported. That is, of course, the norm in this line of research, we rarely have access to behavior data, but it’s certainly worth acknowledging as a potential limitation.”
The study, “How populism and conservative media fuel conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 and what it means for COVID-19 behaviors“, was published online on February 15, 2021.