Washington, D.C. — At a time of rising distrust in the news, internet rumors, and viral conspiracies, a national survey of more than 2,000 Americans finds a public ready to believe the accuracy of unproven or disproven claims. The report, “Conspiracy theories, misinformation, COVID-19, and the 2020 election,” a collaboration between American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life and the Center for American Progress, sheds light on how widely conspiracy theories have spread among the general public and who remains most susceptible to them.
“A significant number of Americans appear susceptible to believing unproven claims,” says Daniel A. Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. “What’s more, politically motivated conspiracy theories find a receptive audience among both Democrats and Republicans.”
A majority of Democrats believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has compromising information about President Donald Trump. A nearly equal-sized majority of Republicans are convinced there has been a coordinated effort by “unelected government officials” to undercut the Trump administration.
The survey asked Americans to weigh the accuracy of a range of different statements about politics, science, and public health that are demonstrably false or lacking supporting evidence, including that former President Barack Obama was born outside of the United States; that there was widespread election fraud in the 2016 election; that China manufactured COVID-19 in a lab as part of a bioweapons program; and whether childhood vaccines cause autism.
At a time of waning confidence in public institutions, the survey finds that most Americans believe that major industries, government, and the media do not disclose information relevant to the public interest. A majority of Americans believe that the federal government, drug companies, technology companies, and major news organizations regularly withhold information that pertains to public health or welfare.
“American society faces a genuine crisis in public trust in government, corporations, and the media, exacerbated by wide partisan divides about who and what to believe, said John Halpin, a CAP senior fellow and co-author of the report. “If we can’t agree on basic facts about what is going on in our country, there is little hope of generating consensus on what needs to be done to control the pandemic and fix our economy. Rebuilding public trust in major institutions, and the information they provide the public, is now a national priority.”
The survey also reveals widespread misinformation about COVID-19 that is most pronounced among Republicans. Close to half (48 percent) of Republicans, and 25 percent of Democrats, say COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu. More than 4 in 10 (42 percent) Republicans believe that “hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective way to treat COVID-19.”
As the United States faces a resurgence of COVID-19 cases nationally, Americans express a considerable hesitation about receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. Fewer than half of Americans say they would be willing to take a free FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19. Among those who say they would not get a vaccine, safety topped the list of concerns.
Other notable points from the report:
- Roughly 4 in 10 Americans are familiar with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and only 16 percent of Americans who have heard or read at least a little about these conspiracies say they are accurate. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to have heard of QAnon, but notably one-third of Republicans who have heard of QAnon say the claims that have been made are accurate.
- Despite the widespread coverage of the anti-vaxxer movement, very few Americans believe that vaccines are responsible for autism. Ten percent of Americans say the statement, “Childhood vaccines have been shown to cause autism,” is mostly or completely accurate.
Read the full report here: “Conspiracy theories, misinformation, COVID-19, and the 2020 election”
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