How public belief in COVID conspiracy theories and misinformation evolved in 2020

Many still believe that the coronavirus was developed in a laboratory in China.

A schism in Americans’ understanding of the threat that the coronavirus pandemic represents appeared early on in the crisis and has lingered throughout the year. This divide is deeply engrained across partisan lines, with Democrats consistently indicating the highest levels of concern about the pandemic.

By contrast, less than half of Republicans say they are “extremely or very” concerned about the virus. There was a brief period in early April when around 57% of Republicans indicated more elevated levels of concern about the pandemic, but these numbers soon leveled off through the spring and on into the fall.

As these mixed views on the level of threat that the virus represents would suggest, the belief systems underpinning them also look quite different.

Not only that, but about equivalent numbers across partisan lines are concerned that the other side lacks the right facts about the virus. The source of these facts — or where Americans primarily source their news — is another critical element in understanding how Americans perceive the virus beyond partisan identity.

While the flu and the coronavirus can result in similar symptoms, the coronavirus is far more deadly. But as is the case with levels of concern about the virus, how dangerous Americans think the virus really is strongly linked to their partisan identity. According to a recent NPR/Ipsos survey on misinformation, 45% of Republicans and 27% of Democrats believe that the virus is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu.

Yet as a group, Republicans are not the outliers. Instead, news consumption is more significantly correlated with COVID skepticism. Just over half (51%) of FOX News viewers believe that the virus is no worse than the flu, 6 points more than Republicans as a group. And among Americans who say they primarily get their news from conservative websites, it’s even higher — a full 82% of believe that the virus is nothing more to worry about than the flu.

Irrespective of these demographic differences, views of how much more lethal the coronavirus is appear to have diminished over the year. The number of Americans who believe that the virus is about on par with the flu grew by 12 points from March to December, even as the death toll grew steadily higher over the same period. As of October, the coronavirus had killed more people over the previous eight months than the flu did in the past five years.

But there are doubts even about the reality of the officially reported coronavirus death toll. According to the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, roughly two in three believe the real number of deaths is not the same as the official statistics. That group is equally divided between believing the true toll is higher than the official count (mostly Democrats) and believing the real number is lower (mostly Republicans).

On this score, news consumption also plays a significant role in affecting how Americans perceive the truth behind the numbers. Predictably, FOX News viewers are more likely to believe that the numbers are an overcount. As of mid-December, 59% of FOX watchers believed that the true numbers were fewer than reported while 58% of Americans who turn to CNN/MSNBC believe that they are an undercount.

The origin of the coronavirus is another point of contention, a topic subject to a slew of conspiracy theories. As of late December, 40% of Americans and 62% of Republicans believed that the coronavirus was developed in a laboratory in China — a debunked theory espoused by various conservative outlets and promoted by President Trump at an early stage of the crisis.

Current understandings of where the coronavirus arose bear some resemblance to what they were close to the start of the crisis. By mid-April 2020, 44% of Americans believed that the coronavirus was attributable to specific people or organizations and was not a natural occurrence, according to a Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos survey.

Of those who then believed that there was some human interference at play behind the sudden emergence of the virus, 66% believed that China or the Chinese government was in some way to blame. Among the survey participants who opted to write in their theory of the coronavirus’ origins, 13% specifically said that it came from a Chinese lab.

The irresistible pull that the Chinese lab theory has in conservative circles is most evident across patterns of news consumption — 91% of Americans who get their news from conservative sources online believe that it was created in a lab, as do 74% of FOX News viewers. Further, 56% of Americans who get their news second-hand (from friends or family) believe the virus came from a Chinese lab, underscoring that while misinformation might go viral the fastest online, it can easily be circulated word of mouth.

Schisms in how Americans view certain fundamental realities about the coronavirus have consequences not just for our present ability to reach across the aisle and create a shared consensus. They also may have implications for the rollout of the recently approved coronavirus vaccine. For the vaccine to be effective, it will likely take significant buy-in (potentially as much as 75–80%) from the total population to achieve herd immunity.

While the number of Americans who say that they would get the vaccine either immediately or within a matter of weeks after it is made available to them has been steadily ticking upwards, there is still a relative lack of buy-in or urgency from some circles. Notably, just 29% of Americans who primarily get their news from conservative sources online say they would take one straight away. Nor would more than half of Americans who get their news from social media or friends and family.

Bridging the gulf on at least some of these matters will be a challenging, but likely necessary step in bringing the nation and world back to the semblance of normality we are all hoping for in 2021.

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.