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Researchers find COVID hoax belief is a gateway to other conspiracy theories

Daniel Shively protested against COVID-19 closures at the Ohio Statehouse on April 14, 2020.
David Holm
Daniel Shively protested against COVID-19 closures at the Ohio Statehouse on April 14, 2020.

In a recent study, Ohio State University researchers found people who reported believing conspiracy theories about the pandemic were more likely to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

Researchers say it appears once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it promotes distrust in institutions in general.

Javier Granados Samayoa was one of the authors of the study.

“When you have large scale events like this if those are leading people down the rabbit hole and it's sustained over a long enough period of time it suggests that over time and this is conjecture at this point you might get a society that is more conspiratorial,” said Javier Granados Samayoa.

The researchers asked 501 participants in a June 2020 survey to answer questions assessing their beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, political ideology and what is called conspiracist ideation, or one’s overall affinity for conspiracy theories.

In this section, participants used a 5-point scale ranging from "definitely not true" to "definitely true" to rate statements such as "Some UFO sightings and rumors are planned or staged in order to distract the public from real alien contact" and "New and advanced technology which would harm current industry is being suppressed."

Six months later, in December 2020, 107 of those same participants again responded to statements gauging their level of conspiratorial thinking. Researchers further assessed conspiracist ideation by asking participants to report the extent to which they believed that there had been extensive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Researchers found that for some conspiracy theorists, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a trigger.

“They felt some sort of dissatisfied dissatisfaction with the explanation for 9/11 and that ended up leading them to other conspiracy theory resources and that's how I ended up with this conspiracy theory website and I figured that COVID-19 might play a similar role it was this very large scale distressing event and people may have been unsatisfied with the explanations and look for alternative explanations which ultimately expose them to different kinds of conspiracy theories,“ said Granados Samayoa.

The Ohio State data showed one strong trend suggesting that financial distress during the lockdown could have been a factor in adopting conspiracy theories.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Williams was a reporter for WOSU. Natasha is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and has more than 20 years of television news and radio experience.