New poll shows coronavirus conspiracy theories may hamper vaccine efforts
According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 44 percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements — a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.
The survey, which was conducted May 20 and 21, found that only 26 percent of Republicans correctly identify the story as false.
In contrast, just 19 percent of Democrats believe the same spurious narrative about the Microsoft founder and public-health philanthropist. A majority of Democrats recognize that it’s not true.
As states relax their lockdown restrictions and responsibility for containing the coronavirus shifts, in part, to the American people, the vast gap between the right and the left over Gates reflects a growing problem: the dangerous, destabilizing tendency to ignore fundamental facts about the deadly pathogen in favor of misinformation peddled by partisans, including President Trump, and spread on social media.
That tendency is more widespread on the right, although liberals also believe some false narratives (including that COVID-19 deaths have already surged in states that were quick to reopen).
The new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that this “choose your own reality” effect is distorting perceptions of nearly every aspect of the pandemic, from reopening to vaccination to the official death toll. A broad majority of the public is either “very” (56 percent) or “somewhat” concerned (30 percent) about “false or misleading information being communicated about coronavirus.” That sentiment, at least, is not partisan: More than 80 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree.
Yet blame for these concerns varies greatly by political affiliation. When Democrats are asked to select the top source of false or misleading information about the coronavirus, 56 percent pick the Trump administration; that number rises to 69 percent among Hillary Clinton voters. Republicans, however, point to the mainstream media (54 percent) as the primary culprit; 61 percent of Trump voters say likewise.
The result, in many cases, is two different sets of “facts” — only one of which resembles the truth.
Take the Gates example. Half of all Americans (50 percent) who name Fox News as their primary television news source believe the disproven conspiracy theory, and 44 percent of voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 do as well — even though neither Fox nor Trump has promoted it. At the same time, just 15 percent of MSNBC viewers and 12 percent of Clinton voters say the story is true.
The spread of such an outlandish charge may seem silly, but it could have catastrophic consequences. Through his namesake foundation, the tech billionaire has long championed vaccines in developing countries. So far, he has committed $300 million to combating the coronavirus. If large portions of the public believe that Gates’s intent is nefarious — and if they go on to convince themselves that any coronavirus vaccine will be dangerous — then many may refuse to get vaccinated. (There is a parallel sentiment among some evangelicals to resist vaccination out of fear it would constitute the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the Book of Revelation.)
The more people refuse to get vaccinated, the harder it becomes to end the pandemic.
The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that skepticism about a possible coronavirus vaccine is already taking root on the right. There is little partisan disagreement over vaccines in general: 83 percent of Americans consider childhood vaccines either “somewhat” or “very” safe, and more than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans share this view. The same goes for concerns over the safety of “fast-tracking” the vaccine through the typical research and regulatory process: 73 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned, with little difference by party affiliation.
But when it comes to actually getting vaccinated, Clinton voters are nearly 30 points more likely to say they will (72 percent) than Trump voters (44 percent). A majority of Trump voters say either that they plan to skip the shot (29 percent) or that they aren’t sure (27 percent), even though the president himself has been pushing hard for a vaccine.
As a result, only half of Americans (50 percent) now say they intend to get vaccinated “if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available,” with nearly a quarter (23 percent) saying they won’t — a 5-point decline in the percentage of “yes” responses and a 4-point gain in the percentage of “no” responses since the previous Yahoo News/YouGov survey two weeks ago. The rest (27 percent) say they’re not sure.
This emerging trend against coronavirus inoculation may be linked to the smokescreen of misinformation that anti-vaccination activists and others have spread online as researchers have started to make progress on a possible vaccine. Whatever the cause, just 42 percent of Americans now trust the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health authorities to judge the risks of vaccines; 31 percent do not and 27 percent are unsure. A majority of Democrats trust the CDC; a plurality of Republicans (41 percent) do not.
Vaccines are not the only subject of misinformation. Another example with dire implications is hydroxychloroquine. A majority of Fox News viewers (53 percent), along with nearly half of Trump voters (49 percent) and Republicans (44 percent), think the antimalarial drug is an effective treatment against COVID-19 — even though study after study has not proved that to be true. In fact, a new study of 96,000 hospitalized coronavirus patients on six continents found that those who received the drug had a significantly higher risk of death compared with those who did not.
Far fewer Trump voters, meanwhile, say that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective (just 17 percent) or that they are not sure (34 percent) — an upside-down perspective that may have something to do with the fact that the president told reporters Monday that he has been taking the drug for the last “couple of weeks” as a preventive measure.
In contrast, only 5 percent of Clinton voters say hydroxychloroquine is effective. Seventy-three percent of Clinton voters say it is not.
The poll also found that a plurality of Trump voters (41 percent) say they would take hydroxychloroquine if it were available to them. Only 4 percent of Clinton voters say the same; 80 percent say they would not take the drug. The Food and Drug Administration has warned that hydroxychloroquine should be used only in clinical trials or hospitals because it can trigger fatal heart arrhythmia in COVID-19 patients.
The left is not immune to picking and choosing its preferred version of events. Democrats (58 percent) are more likely than Republicans (33 percent) to believe that “coronavirus-related deaths have surged” in early-to-reopen red states such as “Florida, Georgia and Texas” — as are Americans in general (45 percent). Yet average daily deaths have declined in Georgia and Florida since reopening, while holding roughly steady in Texas.
That said, the right is more inclined than the left to believe easily invalidated coronavirus claims — especially if Trump himself has made them.
Majorities of Trump voters (53 percent) and Fox News viewers (60 percent) agree, for instance, that the U.S. has conducted more coronavirus tests than the rest of the world combined, a frequent Trump boast. In reality, the U.S. has conducted fewer tests than the next three countries (Russia, Germany and Italy) put together, and fewer per capita than 38 foreign countries.
Trump’s claims that he “always viewed [the coronavirus] as very serious” and that “nobody ever thought a thing like this could happen” elicit similarly divergent responses, even when not attributed to Trump.
Asked whether the president always viewed the coronavirus as a very serious threat, a majority of Trump voters and Republicans (51 percent in both cases) say yes; just 3 percent of Clinton voters and 8 percent of Democrats concur. In reality, Trump downplayed the threat at least 44 times.
Asked whether “this kind of pandemic” was “something nobody thought could happen,” a similar number of Trump voters (51 percent) and Republicans (52 percent) answer affirmatively. Only about a third of Democrats (36 percent) and Clinton voters (30 percent) say the same — which squares with the fact that the U.S. intelligence community, public health experts, officials in Trump’s own administration and Gates himself had warned for years that the country was at risk from a pandemic like this.
Majorities of Trump voters (58 percent), Republicans (57 percent) and Fox News viewers (65 percent) also believe that “Chinese scientists engineered coronavirus in a lab, from which it accidentally escaped” — an improbable theory disputed by the intelligence community and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Pluralities of each of these three conservative-leaning groups also believe that “COVID-19 was intentionally created by Chinese scientists as a biowarfare weapon,” which not even the Trump administration is alleging.
And while most Americans believe that the CDC’s official coronavirus death count, which now stands at about 94,000, is either accurate (19 percent) or lower than the real number of COVID-19 deaths (45 percent), the right does not: 52 percent of Trump voters and 55 percent of Fox News viewers insist it is too high. Trump often says the same — even though many public health experts, including some within his administration, have been stressing that COVID-19 deaths and cases are almost certainly being undercounted.
A belief that deaths are being overcounted squares with assertions by Donald Trump Jr. and others in the Trump camp that Democrats are exaggerating the threat to hurt the president’s reelection.
There is still some shared reality. Most Democrats, Republicans and independents say, for instance, that they will continue to practice social distancing even after official restrictions are lifted; most also characterize the CDC’s recommendation that everyone wear a cloth mask or other face covering in public places where distancing is not possible as “about right” in terms of strictness.
But views on reopening are starting to diverge as well. Asked in previous Yahoo News/YouGov polls whether stay-at-home orders were the only way to stop the spread of COVID-19 or whether “the cure is worse than the disease,” majorities of Americans, both Democratic and Republican, said the former. Now for the first time, a majority of Republicans (53 percent) say the cure is worse. Among Trump voters and Fox News viewers, that number skyrockets to 59 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
On the right, nearly every question about reopening is trending in the same direction. Pluralities of Republicans (44 percent) and majorities of Trump voters (55 percent) and Fox News viewers (61 percent) now support the protesters demanding an end to lockdown measures. Wide majorities of these right-leaning groups also say they are more concerned about lifting restrictions too slowly than too quickly; most Americans — by a 61 percent to 39 percent margin — still say the opposite. And while 62 percent of Americans say they’re more worried about the impact of the coronavirus on people’s health than on the economy, the right disagrees: 63 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of Trump voters and 73 percent of Fox News viewers say they’re more worried about the economy.
Similar percentages of these three groups say the economy should reopen “as soon as possible to prevent further economic damage” instead of “when public health officials are fully able to test and trace new cases and outbreaks.” Asked what’s worse — 200,000 more elderly Americans dying of COVID-19 over the next year or 30 million Americans being unemployed for the next year — 73 percent of Trump voters say the latter. Overall, Americans disagree by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.
These disputes are more matters of opinion than fact. But they could create challenges going forward. Fewer Americans say the U.S. is prepared (32 percent) to handle a second coronavirus outbreak if it occurs later this year than say the country is not prepared (43 percent), with 25 percent unsure. Yet Republicans are more optimistic, with 57 percent saying America is ready.
So while a majority of Americans want the government to continue enforcing social distancing measures (63 percent) and would favor resuming lockdowns in the event of a resurgence (66 percent), Republicans are divided on these questions, with only 49 percent backing more lockdowns if infections spike and a full 59 percent agreeing that “people are practicing enough social distancing to keep coronavirus under control without strict government measures.”
If and when the coronavirus comes back — Fauci, for one, has said a second wave is “inevitable” — it could prove difficult to reach a broad consensus on the proper response.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,640 U.S. adult residents interviewed online between May 20 and 21, 2020. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education, as well as 2016 presidential vote, registration status and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S residents. The margin of error is approximately 3.0 percent.