An Oxford University study conducted in May found that around 20% of adults in England may believe in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic. In a study of 2,500 adults — weighted by income, region, age and gender — people were asked about the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements about coronavirus. (For more, see the Oxford University site here.)
Alarmingly, 60% of respondents said they believed the government was misleading the public about the cause of the virus and 40% believe that there is an attempt to use the virus to control the population.
The most agreed-with statement was that “coronavirus is a bioweapon developed by China to destroy the West”, with only 54.6% of people saying “do not agree”.
Just under 20% of respondents agreed with statements blaming Jews or Muslims for the spread of the virus. Just over 20% of respondents agreed to varying extents that “Bill Gates has created the virus in order to reduce the world population.” More than 25% agreed to an extent that “celebrities are being paid to say they have coronavirus.” 21% agreed to an extent that 5G was causing coronavirus.
As the academics leading the study point out, the significant minority who do not accept official explanations or guidance on Covid-19 could have an impact on public health and how we manage this pandemic. Follow up questions showed that the same people were less likely to follow government advice. In the future, they may also be resistant to vaccination.
Conspiracy thinking also leads to more immediately dangerous behaviour, such as the attacks we have seen on telecommunication towers, endangering the lives of workers in that industry.
Moreover it shows the deep rot of racism in society and how this can be re-ignited or given new life, especially in times of crisis.
Conspiracy thinking tends to be based on old ideas — most clearly demonstrated here by antisemitism. But it is fuelled by recent technologies and the fact that social media has, for many people, become the chief way they find out about current affairs or read about politics.
As Luxemburg said, “The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening”, and as Lenin said, “Our strength lies in stating the truth!”
Socialists must be truth-tellers in our workplaces and communities. It’s up to us to both criticise our government’s handling of the crisis at the same time as defending scientific truth and reality.
Although greater levels of education do help, anti-scientific conspiracy thinking is not confined to the uneducated — as can be seen in the number of middle class people who are against vaccinations, or indeed in Prince Charles’s promotion of pseudoscience such as homeopathy. People of all classes, including our own, may well believe complete bunkum on certain issues, even if they are sensible on others. We have to address this clearly and robustly with the aim of convincing them.
Finally, we have to hold those in power accountable for erasing public trust in institutions through repeatedly lying and covering up the truth. We are now (at least in part) reaping the fruit that they have sown.