Health Analytics Asia’s data journalist Anuja Venkatachalam analysed data from Google Search to draw insights on the COVID-19 conspiracy theories that dominated online searches. Here’s our exclusive report on the prevalence and impact of conspiracy theories trending during the coronavirus pandemic.
By Anuja Venkatachalam
The COVID-19 pandemic is nearing its seventh month, but conspiracy theories about its origin show no signs of waning.
Starting in late-January, the theory about SARS-CoV-2 being created in a lab dominated online searches. The buzz around it fizzled out, only to resurface in cycles in mid-March, mid-April, and early-May, particularly in the United States.
In late-March, searches in India were dominated by the conspiracy theory that coronavirus was created in China. And, around the same time, searches in the UK were dominated by the 5G conspiracy theory which claims that COVID-19 originated from 5G mobile networks poisoning cells which transpired into what is now called the coronavirus.
The prevalence of conspiracy theories
Public perception studies show that factions in every country believe in conspiracy theories. In a poll of ~25,000 randomly selected participants from 28 countries, stratified by gender, 32% believed that coronavirus was deliberately created by a foreign power or other force. About 45% were certain that it emerged naturally, and 22% were uncertain of its origin.
Interestingly, fewer respondents in the United States believed in conspiracy theories than in India, which exceeded the global average.
In another study published by Carleton University, 46% of Canadians believed in at least one of four COVID-19 conspiracy theories and myths presented to them. The most popular being that coronavirus was engineered in a Chinese laboratory as a bioweapon.
The study, which reported a lower margin of error (+/-2.19%) sampled 2000 Canadians and found that younger individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 years were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than older individuals.
The Carleton study also found that individuals who believed the discredited conspiracy theories spent more time every day on social media platforms. This held true on all platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Tiktok.
The extent to which conspiracy theories affect individual behavior
The extent to which conspiracy theories fuel a disregard for preventative measures is unclear. Despite the presence of conspiracy believers, the global poll on COVID-19 found that 91% of respondents adopted at least one of the six precautionary measures recommended by the World Health Organisation to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The data does not show an overlap between countries with larger groups of conspiracy believers and non-adherence. However, another study published by the Cambridge University Press involving a smaller non-random sample of 2,501 adults in England found that higher levels of conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to government guidelines, and less willingness to get tested or vaccinated.
Conspiracy believers also demonstrated common characteristics such as paranoia, distrust in institutions and professions, and similar beliefs in other areas such as vaccination and climate change.
More importantly, the study found that individuals with conspiracy beliefs were more likely to share and propagate their opinions compared to individuals who did not hold these beliefs.
Perceived seriousness of threat a more important factor than conspiracy theories
A more pertinent cause for non-adherence is perhaps the perceived gravity of the pandemic. Respondents in the global poll were equally divided on this aspect. While 49% of respondents believed that the threat from COVID-19 was exaggerated, 46% disagreed with this view.
There is also a greater overlap between countries that reported exaggeration and non-adherence to guidelines. Countries such as Pakistan and the US, for example, showed a lower prevalence of conspiracy believers but reported higher rates of non-adherence and a higher percentage of people who believed the threat from COVID-19 was exaggerated.
Origin theories that gained public interest in India
Google Search trends show that the most popular COVID-19 conspiracy theory in India is China’s role in “creating” the virus to gain geopolitical dominance. Search terms such as “coronavirus made by China”, and “China created coronavirus” were popular even before the political tensions between the two countries ensued. Google users filed questions such as “Is coronavirus a microbiological weapon”, “Is coronavirus the outcome of the economic war?” and “Was coronavirus spread out worldwide for global diplomatic issues?” for which they wanted more information.
Religion is also a recurring theme not only in origin theories but also in predictions about the future. Popular searches included mentions of the pandemic in the Vedas, in Jainism, and in the Quran, predictions by religious leaders and prayers for protection against the disease.