Thursday, 15 October 2020

Covidiot News - Wackadoodle Conspiracists

Covidiots protesting against lockdown in Harrisburg, PA, USA
Paul Weaver
Popular COVID-19 conspiracies linked to vaccine ‘hesitancy’ | University of Cambridge

Researchers from Cambridge University, UK have analysed data obtained from five different countries and have shown how readily misinformation and fake news about the coronavirus can gain traction. The countries are USA, UK, Mexico, Ireland and Spain.

Using this data, they were able to identify a number of 'key predictors' for susceptibility to fake pandemic news. They also found a clear link between susceptibility to fake news about coronavirus and hesitancy about receiving any future vaccine against it.

Respondents were asked a series of questions to determine their gender, age, ethnicity, political persuasion and numeracy, their trust in politicians' and in the World Health Organization's handling of the crisis, both on a scale of 1 to 7 with 1 being 'not at all' to 7 being 'very much'. Then they were asked to rank a series of statement about coronavirus on a relability scale of 1 to 7 with 1 being 'very unreliable' to 7 being 'very reliable'. Their attitude towards any future vaccine was tested by asking them whether they would accept the vaccine and whether they would recommend it to a vulnerable friend or relative (yes/no).

The following table shows the statements about the coronavirus that respondents were asked to rank for reliability:

Misinformation & factual items
Item no.TypeItem nameFull text
1MisinformationBioengineeringThe coronavirus was bioengineered in a military lab in Wuhan.
2MisinformationBreathBeing able to hold your breath for 10 seconds or more without coughing or discomfort is a good self-check test for whether you have the coronavirus
3MisinformationVaccinationThe coronavirus is part of a global effort to enforce mandatory vaccination.
4MisinformationSalt waterGargling salt water or lemon juice reduces the risk of infection from Coronavirus
5Misinformation5GThe new 5G network may be making us more susceptible to the virus
6MisinformationHot airBreathing in hot air through your mouth and nose (e.g. from a hair dryer) kills the coronavirus as it can only live in cool places.
7Factual informationDiabetesPeople with diabetes are at high risk of complications from coronavirus infection
8Factual informationSanitizerUsing hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is effective in reducing risk of infection from coronavirus.
9AmbiguousIbuprofenTaking ibuprofen when you are infected with the coronavirus could make your symptoms worse

The researchers published their analysis in Royal Society Open Science today (14 October 20202):


Misinformation about COVID-19 is a major threat to public health. Using five national samples from the UK (n= 1050 and n= 1150), Ireland (n = 700), the USA (n = 700), Spain (n= 700) and Mexico (n= 700), we examine predictors of belief in the most common statements about the virus that contain misinformation. We also investigate the prevalence of belief in COVID-19 misinformation across different countries and the role of belief in such misinformation in predicting relevant health behaviours. We find that while public belief in misinformation about COVID-19 is not particularly common, a substantial proportion views this type of misinformation as highly reliable in each country surveyed. In addition, a small group of participants find common factual information about the virus highly unreliable. We also find that increased susceptibility to misinformation negatively affects people's self-reported compliance with public health guidance about COVID-19, as well as people's willingness to get vaccinated against the virus and to recommend the vaccine to vulnerable friends and family. Across all countries surveyed, we find that higher trust in scientists and having higher numeracy skills were associated with lower susceptibility to coronavirus-related misinformation. Taken together, these results demonstrate a clear link between susceptibility to misinformation and both vaccine hesitancy and a reduced likelihood to comply with health guidance measures, and suggest that interventions which aim to improve critical thinking and trust in science may be a promising avenue for future research.

Their main findings are explained in a Cambridge University press release:

While a large majority of people in all five nations judged the misinformation to be unreliable, researchers found that certain conspiracy theories have taken root in significant portions of the population.

The conspiracy deemed most valid across the board was the claim that COVID-19 was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. Between 22-23% of respondents in the UK and United States rated this assertion as “reliable”. In Ireland this rose to 26%, while in Mexico and Spain it jumped to 33% and 37% respectively.

This was followed by the idea that the pandemic is “part of a plot to enforce global vaccination”, with 22% of the Mexican population rating this as reliable, along with 18% in Ireland, Spain and the US, and 13% in the UK.

The notorious 5G conspiracy – that some telecommunication towers are worsening COVID-19 symptoms – holds sway over smaller but still significant segments: 16% in Mexico, 16% in Spain, 12% in Ireland, and 8% in both the UK and US....

“Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public. We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine,” said Dr Sander van der Linden, co-author and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab...

“Certain misinformation claims are consistently seen as reliable by substantial sections of the public. We find a clear link between believing coronavirus conspiracies and hesitancy around any future vaccine,” said Dr Sander van der Linden, co-author and Director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab...

Moreover, and despite ‘boomer’ memes, the team found that being older is actually linked to lower susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation in all nations except Mexico (where the opposite is true).

Identifying as more right-wing or politically conservative is associated with higher likelihood of believing COVID-19 conspiracies and falsehoods in Ireland, Mexico and Spain – but less so in the UK or US.

Trusting that politicians can effectively tackle the crisis predicts higher likelihood of buying into conspiracies in Mexico, Spain and the US, but not in the UK and Ireland. Exposure to information about the virus on social media is linked to misinformation susceptibility in Ireland, the UK and US.

Researchers asked participants about their attitude to a future coronavirus vaccine. They were also asked to rate the reliability of conspiratorial COVID-19 claims on a scale of one to seven.

On average, an increase by one-seventh in someone’s perceived reliability of misinformation is associated with a drop of almost a quarter – 23% – in the likelihood they will agree to get vaccinated.

Similarly, a one-point increase on the conspiracy reliability scale is linked, on average, to a 28% decrease in the odds of someone recommending vaccination to vulnerable friends and family.

Conversely, on average, a one-seventh increase in trust in scientists is associated with a 73% increase in the likelihood of getting vaccinated and a 79% increase in the odds of recommending vaccination to others.

To summarise: having low numeracy skills and being politically right-wing predispose to accepting wackadoodle conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and make the person more likely to reject a vaccine when one becomes available. Any possible link between low numeracy skills and increased susceptibility to wackadoodle ideas, and being politically right-wing in the first place, was not explored by the researchers, but it's easy to see why Donald Trump and his supporters tend to believe daft conspiracy theories, especially ones about the Wuhan laboratory and a global conspiracy to enforce mandatory vaccinations.

As Donald Trump once boasted, he loves the uneducated.

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