Message Approaches to Conspiracy Theories and Political Climate
Belief in conspiracy theories about COVID-19 in the United States is prevalent and constant. This article presents the results of a national probability survey about conspiracy theories, preventive measure behaviors and intentions, political ideology, and media exposure patterns. Conspiracy beliefs accurately predict individuals’ non-response to preventive recommendations (e.g., mask-wearing) and vaccine uptake intentions. Individuals with conservative political ideologies, who relied on conservative media outlets, who were active on social media, and who identified as non-White racial-ethnic identity are more likely to believe the misinformation perpetuated by conspiracy theorists. Journalists have a responsibility to confront this misinformation, especially among those with politically conservative audiences, to increase acceptance of sound medical recommendations to control the spread of COVID-19.
The authors of this commentary propose that to disseminate effective public health messaging about COVID-19, it is imperative to understand the etiologies of disinformation, misinformation, and medical mistrust. They argue that disinformation propagated by the federal government to preserve power and undermine already marginalized groups and the inequality-driven mistrust among vulnerable communities has led to a pushback against scientific evidence during COVID-19. They provide the following recommendations for effective public health messaging to address inequities:
- Researchers and clinicians need to better understand beliefs to more effectively bridge the mistrust gaps
- Public health and medical professionals must address structural racism directly
- Public health communicators should frame messages by identifying the underpinnings of false information and mistrust and avoid using terms like “conspiracy beliefs” in those communications
By enacting these suggestions, people will be less likely to endorse misinformation and disinformation.
Additionally, to help avoid stigma, a group of researchers conducted a content analysis of COVID-19 messages on Twitter. They report in this article that the peril of COVID-19 was mentioned the most often unless the tweets included conspiracy theories. Those tweets were more likely to include group labeling and responsibility information. They also included more stigma message content and misinformation. Because of this, public health messengers need to be aware of unintentional stigmatization of health messages and increase the urgency to engage and educate people with COVID-19 facts.
Beyond the conspiracy theories and misinformation, political climate must also be assessed to understand its influence on public health messaging. This article reports on a national survey of U.S. adults that clearly shows that conservatives believe people are overreacting to COVID-19 and that the pandemic is receiving too much media attention whereas liberals report that the government has not done enough to respond to COVID-19. This also translated into preventive behaviors with more liberals engaging in recommendations such as social distancing. The political climate must be considered when crafting effective messages, which will likely need to be tailored to the values based on political affiliation.