Why Covid Conspiracy Theories Spread: Understanding the Human Behaviors Behind the Pandemic

Posted May 12, 2021

We can’t stop Covid-19 from spreading without understanding the people who carry it.  

Why do so many people embrace Covid-19 misinformation? Does lack of health insurance discourage people from getting tested, even when testing is free? And what prevented doctors in Italy from sharing what they learned about oxygen levels, even though it could help predict which Covid patients were at the highest risk of dying? 

Four faculty members in the School of History and Sociology (HSOC) at Georgia Tech are examining these questions and more to help craft effective policy responses to the pandemic. 

“This research by the School’s faculty shows that the pandemic is not just a problem in biology and medicine. Instead, curbing the pandemic requires scholars who understand human knowledge and human behavior, which are topics at the center of the social sciences and humanities,” said Eric Schatzberg, chair of the School of History and Sociology. 

Understanding Covid Conspiracies 

HSOC Associate Professor Amit Prasad found something surprising when he examined Covid-19 conspiracy theories: these theories are not automatically anti-science. Often, purveyors of misinformation use the credibility of science and scientists to spread falsehoods. 

For example, Dr. Judy Mikovits’s pseudo-documentary Plandemic received millions of views despite its false claims—such as “wearing a mask literally activates your own virus.” Why did people believe such claims? 

Mikovits’s falsehoods didn’t matter to viewers because her use “of ‘science’ and so-called ‘scientific claims’ in the video facilitated a sense of trust for the general public,” wrote Prasad. 

Prasad’s research also examined how the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates had created the pandemic spread for different reasons in different communities. For instance, Prasad argues that within the Black community, the messaging reflected “the long history of mistrust resulting from racial discrimination and exploitation.” In contrast, among many white people, the conspiracy was driven by messaging about protecting individual freedom and the republic. This analysis shows that “histories of particular social groups may play a very significant role in the acceptance and spread of misinformation and conspiracies.” 

Prasad’s approach differs from past studies that characterized conspiracy theories as anti-science. These studies called for clearer communication of scientific knowledge to combat misinformation. But Prasad finds that better communication may not be the most effective solution. “My research shows that broad characterizations of misinformation and conspiracies as anti-science does not help in properly understanding what is going on,” he wrote. 

As Georgia and other states begin to transition from mass Covid-19 vaccination efforts to a more targeted approach, understanding that vaccine skepticism is caused by social and political factors beyond anti-science beliefs can help create more effective messaging.  

“A ‘war’ on misinformation and conspiracies, which is aimed at banishing them completely, may not work in our instantaneously and globally connected world,” concluded Prasad. “Instead, we need to carefully study misinformation and conspiracies and deal with them by addressing the social and health issues experienced by particular social groups.” 

Prasad’s article, “Anti-Science Misinformation and Conspiracies: COVID–19, Post-Truth, and Science & Technology Studies (STS),” is open access and appeared in Science, Technology and Society in April 2021. 

Advocating for vulnerable families 

How do social and economic factors — such as relying on public health insurance, living below the poverty line, or losing work during the Covid-19 pandemic — disproportionately affect Black children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families? 

HSOC Associate Professor Jennifer Singh will research this topic in summer 2021, with funding from a Special Opportunity for Faculty Development Activities (SODA) grant from the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. Her survey and interviews seek to map disruptions not only in children’s learning, treatment, and well-being, but also in the well-being of their caregiver. According to Singh’s research objective, the goal is “to understand how they have managed socially, emotionally, and economically during the Covid-19 crisis.”  

With this data, Singh plans to identify how families are coping with Covid-related barriers to their children’s continued progress. She hopes to understand how caregivers use support networks to balance their dual roles as financial supporters and supervisors of their children’s education. Finally, Singh hopes to identify unique opportunities and challenges presented by the new learning and social environments that emerged during the pandemic. 

Singh is also working with Milan Riddick, a fourth-year student in the College of Engineering minoring in Health, Medicine, and Society. Riddick’s interdisciplinary President’s Undergraduate Research Award (PURA) project will study “Mistrust of the Covid-19 Vaccine Among Black Citizens of Georgia.” 

Quantifying health and education inequalities 

Lower rates of health insurance coverage were associated with lower levels of Covid-19 testing, according to a study of state-level data from March 2020 by HSOC assistant professor Allen Hyde and co-author Angran Li from Zhejiang University in China. This relationship may have exacerbated the spread of the virus and the deaths associated with it. 

“Further, lack of health insurance coverage may exacerbate racial and class inequality in Covid-19 testing and subsequent hospitalizations and death,” wrote Hyde and Li.  “For example, a majority of Covid-19-related deaths reported in Louisiana are African Americans, accounting for 70 percent of the deaths, while African Americans only make up 30 percent of the state’s population (Doubek 2020). Similar patterns have occurred in other cities.” 

In 2018, about 8% of the U.S. population was uninsured. However, that number varied by state and jumped as high as 17.7% in Texas. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that in the same year, “one in five uninsured adults went without needed medical care due to costs.” This could mean that even if uninsured people show symptoms of Covid-19, they may not get tested or seek treatment because of financial concerns. Although the Trump Administration announced that Covid-19 testing and treatment would be free, people may have been unaware or skeptical that they would not have to pay.  

Hyde and Li’s research, “A Slow Start on an Urgent Crisis: How Lack of Health Insurance Helps Explain Deficiencies in Coronavirus Testing in U.S. States,” was published in Contexts, official publication of the American Sociological Association. It gives support to the long-running argument that universal health care can save lives. 

Hyde also worked with Li and Amanda Maltbie, a Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama, to research the impact of Covid-19 on education. The article, forthcoming in the book Social Justice and Education in the 21st Century: Research from South Africa and the United States, examines how disasters reinforce existing structural inequalities and exacerbate them in the aftermath. 

What makes knowledge move? 

“Knowledge does not move transnationally by itself,” wrote Kranzberg Professor Emeritus John Krige with co-author Sabina Leonelli, professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Exeter University. For information to move efficiently around the world, they found, interested parties need to have access to “technological infrastructure” — such as the internet — and shared systems for data collection and sharing.  

When those systems aren’t in place, information doesn’t move as fast as it should, as was the case when it took doctors in Italy two months to get international recognition for their finding that low oxygen levels were a “key cause and potential predictor” in Covid-19 deaths. But when global data-sharing systems are successful, they plug researchers into more extensive networks that hold them accountable, increase their visibility and clout in their home countries, and help amplify their expertise to others.  

By understanding the challenges of transnational knowledge movement, Krige and Leonelli hope to help mitigate them. Their paper documented the creation of Covid-19 data-sharing systems at a historically significant moment, when they were still “in the making,” forming and adapting in real-time to the changing Covid-19 situation. The first case study focused on the French debate to use a local, centralized contact tracing app versus the decentralized app created by Apple and Google. The second examined an international group called the Research Data Alliance that successfully coordinated and shared Covid information across borders where other groups failed. 

In their work, Krige and Leonelli envision a better future, where doctors, scientists, researchers, government officials, policymakers, and experts in every field can “engage in a collective effort, driven from the bottom-up, to ensure that everyone, including the most vulnerable victims of Covid-19, benefits from the knowledge — and the vaccine — that can contain its spread.” 

Krige and Leonelli’s research “Mobilizing the Transnational History of Knowledge Flows. COVID-19 and the Politics of Research at the Borders” is open access and appeared in the journal History and Technology in March 2021. 

For more coverage of Georgia Tech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, please visit our Responding to Covid-19 page.

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