New research suggests that conservative media in the United States is particularly appealing to people who are prone to conspiratorial thinking. The use of conservative media, in turn, is associated with increasing belief in COVID-19 conspiracies and reduced willingness to engage in behaviors to prevent the spread of the virus. The findings appear in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
“We have been studying the proliferation of conspiracies regarding the COVID-19 pandemic since it began early in 2020,” explained study author Dan Romer, the research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
“We have found that belief in conspiracies about the pandemic is related to lower levels of social distancing and personal hygiene behaviors recommended by the CDC, as well as mask wearing, and intentions to vaccinate. Given the importance of these behaviors to ending the pandemic, we are interested in understanding the factors that encourage these conspiracies.”
For their study, the researchers conducted a longitudinal survey of 883 U.S. respondents, which began in March, during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, and concluded in November 2020. Participants were asked to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the statements “The coronavirus was created by the Chinese government as a biological weapon” and “Some in the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as CDC, are exaggerating the danger posed by the coronavirus to damage the Trump presidency.”
Romer and his colleagues found that the use of conservative media (including Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and The Drudge Report) was related to increased belief in both pandemic-related conspiracy theories. Users of conservative media also exhibited greater conspiratorial thinking in general, agreeing more strongly with statements such as “Much of our lives is controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”
The researchers found that heavy users of conservative media were supportive of vaccination and trusted the CDC in March, but continued consumption of conservative media was associated with reduced support for both over time.
The findings indicate “that conservative media in the United States are particularly engaged in entertaining and supporting conspiracies about the pandemic,” Romer told PsyPost. “In addition, there is a segment of the population that is prone to accepting these conspiracies and conservative media cater to this audience. We find that those followers increasingly accepted pandemic conspiracies over the course of 2020 and that the increase in those beliefs was associated with less reported mask wearing, lower intentions to vaccinate, and reduced confidence in the authority of the CDC.”
The use of mainstream print media (such as the Associated Press or the Wall Street Journal) was associated with reductions in belief in pandemic-related conspiracies, which in turn was related to greater mask wearing and greater intentions to get vaccinated. The use of mainstream TV media, on the other hand, was unrelated to changes in COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs, but was associated with mask wearing and vaccine acceptance.
But heavy users of conservative media were less likely to use these mainstream sources. “Although mainstream print news can reduce belief in conspiracies and mainstream TV news can support acceptance of preventive behavior and trust in public health authorities, heavy users of conservative media remain largely impervious to these influences,” the researchers wrote in their study.
The researchers also found that conservative media use increased over time among those who both voted for Trump and had high levels of conspiratorial thinking, but tended to decrease among conservative participants who did not vote for Trump and had low levels of conspiratorial thinking.
“These findings reflect the influence of the former president who actively entertained various conspiracies about the pandemic that were the subject of discussion on conservative media,” Romer said. “While much of the focus has been on social media, our findings suggest that more traditional media, such as cable TV and radio and online sites as well, are just as if not more responsible for the proliferation of misinformation regarding important national challenges such as the pandemic.”
But “we still do not know how to counteract the spread of harmful conspiracies in the media,” Romer added. “It also seems that the willingness to believe in conspiracies about the government and other major institutions has been with us before the pandemic and that skillful politicians and media personalities can take advantage of these tendencies to build an audience and a following that impedes the country’s ability to confront a public health crisis such as the pandemic.”
The study, “Conspiratorial thinking, selective exposure to conservative media, and response to COVID-19 in the US“, was authored by Daniel Romer and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.