Many subjects or events evoke conspiratorial explanations, and the origin of the novel 2019 coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) is clearly among such topics. Indeed, conspiracy theories of COVID-19 are widespread as to not only the origin but also the transmission path and rate, as well as its exaggeration or under-representation in news media or government reports. Our ongoing research focuses on just the origin of this new virus.
We have undertaken on-line surveys of M-Turk workers in the United States and India. Although M-Turk samples are widely used in social science research, particularly for experiments, it should be noted that such samples are not randomly selected or representative of the general population from which they come. The India control group of approximately 100 respondents were primarily male (78 %), in the 25-34 year old age group, and described themselves as ideologically “moderate”. The 267 US control group respondents were more gender-balanced (55 % female), but also from the same age group as the Indian respondents and also described themselves as “moderate” in ideology.
We provided three different stimuli about possible sources of the virus to the respondents, and also defined a “control group” who were simply asked about their opinions about the origin of the coronavirus. Preliminary findings from that group are summarized here to illustrate baseline differences between the M-Turk respondents in the two countries.
Respondents were asked to provide a numerical response from 1 – 7 to the following question: “to what extent do you believe the coronavirus (COVID-19) was created by natural causes such as accidental animal-to-person transmission versus deliberate efforts by humans to engineer a biological weapon?” The lowest scores represented “definitely animal-to-person”, “very likely animal-to-person” and “probably animal-to-person”. At the other end of the scale were responses representing “human-engineered”. While 38 percent of the Indian respondents felt the virus was due to natural causes, 65 percent of Americans did. In other words, far more Indian respondents believe that the conspiracy that the virus was engineered.
We also asked the extent to which the respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “The coronavirus was created by the Chinese government as part of a biological weapons program”? and “The coronavirus was created by the CIA in order to target Chinese power.” Indian respondents were far more likely to agree that the virus was created as part of a biological weapons program (63 percent vs. 25 percent for the US respondents), but also that it was created by the CIA (36 percent vs. 13 percent for the US).
In the full study, we presented respondents with a description of one or another of the conspiracy theories to determine whether or not reading this description would shift the average response away from the baseline. These data have not yet been analyzed.
In sum, we find that conspiracy theories about the origin of the COVID-19 have been accepted by at least part of the population, and our data suggest that this acceptance may vary from country-to-country. Clearly, what is needed is a more nuanced study of the acceptance of conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus, its relationships to local culture and media exposure, and with a more representative respondent population.
April 27,2020 ** based on preliminary field surveys