The global COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a daunting array of baseless speculation about its origins. Uncertain times are fertile ground for disinformation, and conspiracy theories can have serious consequences — not only for individuals who believe them, but for public health in general.
Unfortunately, only sparse polling exists on the degree to which Canadians are vulnerable to conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.
To better understand the pervasiveness and consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Canada, we conducted a large, nationally representative survey as part of the Vox Pop Labs COVID-19 Monitor initiative (table 1). We surveyed 2,271 adults across Canada between April 24 and 28 and weighted the results to ensure that they are representative of the Canadian population.
We examined the perceived legitimacy of six conspiracy theories that have been circulating in the news media and on the internet. Our findings show that not all COVID-19-related conspiracies are equally as pervasive among Canadians. The most popular conspiracy belief is related to a theory that received extensive media coverage: that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China. A sizable 1 in 4 Canadians believe that there is at least some truth to that claim. Scientists seem to agree that it is extremely unlikely, but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is at least possible, which might help explain the popularity of this view.
The second most popular conspiracy theory is that the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus in a lab, which nearly 1 in 5 Canadians believe. And almost 1 in 10 Canadians believes that the COVID-19 pandemic is a way for billionaire Bill Gates to microchip people. The other conspiracies are more fringe: only 6 percent of Canadians believe the pharmaceutical industry is involved in the spread of the virus, while 4 percent of Canadians believe in the link between 5G technology and the virus, or that the US military developed the coronavirus as a bioweapon.
Canadians who believe these conspiracies differ in some ways from those that do not. One pattern in our data is that men are much more likely to believe in these theories than women. For example, nearly twice as many men than women believe the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab. Men are also more likely to believe that the Chinese government engineered the virus, and that Bill Gates is using it as a ploy to microchip people around the world. As an example, 12 percent of men believe in the Bill Gates conspiracy, compared to 7 percent of Canadian women.
We also find that people who get no COVID-19 news on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and others, are less likely to believe conspiracy theories than those who get considerable amount of news that way. For example, nearly 1 in 3 Canadians who gets COVID news on social media believes that coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, while only 1 in 5 who does not get their news on social media share this view.
Importantly, the political profiles of COVID conspiracy believers differ from nonbelievers. With the exception of the theory linking the pharmaceutical industry with COVID-19, it is the Conservative Party of Canada supporters who are the most likely to endorse these conspiracy theories. For example, nearly half of Conservative party voters (42 percent) believe that coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab, compared to 13 percent of Liberal voters and 10 percent of New Democratic Party voters. A very large number of Conservatives also believe that the Chinese government developed the coronavirus in a lab (34 percent) and that Bill Gates is using the coronavirus to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking people (18 percent). For comparison, only 5 percent of NDP voters, and 4 percent of Liberals believe the Bill Gates conspiracy.
Taken together, our results show that although an overwhelming majority of Canadians do not believe in COVID-19 conspiracies, a worryingly high number hold some of these beliefs. That is concerning because these views can easily be linked to action. There have already been people arrested in Quebec for setting a cellphone tower on fire because they believe that 5G has been linked to the spread of the disease. Importantly, though, this is not just about an admittedly small handful of people who will burn down a cellphone tower. Conspiracy thinking has been linked to other behaviours, especially health behaviours.
In our survey, we examined seven behaviours recommended by public health officials to battle the spread of COVID-19: washing hands more often, avoiding common greetings like a handshake, avoiding gatherings of more than 5 people, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces more often, using alcohol-based sanitizers more often, practicing social distancing, and wearing a mask.
On average, those who believe COVID-related conspiracies were 6 percentage points less likely to practice these behaviours. For example, those who believe that COVID-19 pandemic is a way for Bill Gates to microchip people are 17 percentage points less likely than those who do not believe this conspiracy to wash their hands more frequently.
This highlights that these are not just harmless, fringe beliefs. They have consequences for how individuals respond to the pandemic. These individual behaviours, in turn, have consequences for the larger population. Unsafe individual behaviours promote the spread of coronavirus with devastating consequences for public health and the economy. These conspiracies might deter believers from becoming vaccinated if/when a safe COVID-19 vaccine is developed. This may prevent vaccine coverage from reaching the level necessary to protect the larger population.
This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.