Technology & Science

1 in 10 Canadians believes a coronavirus conspiracy theory, survey suggests

Conspiracy theories around the origin of the coronavirus have been circulating since it was first identified. A preliminary study suggests that one in 10 Canadians believes at least one conspiracy theory about the virus. 

Around 15% of respondents believe pharmaceutical industry involved in COVID-19 spread

One of the most popular conspiracy theories around the origin of the new coronavirus is that it was caused by 5G network technology, but scientists say there is no way this could happen. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

One in 10 Canadians believes a conspiracy theory about the novel coronavirus, according to preliminary research from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec. 

The researchers sent surveys to 600 people, half in Quebec and half in the rest of Canada, to ask about the psychological impacts of the pandemic.  

Respondents were presented with six conspiracy theories and asked if they believe any of them. According to Marie-Eve Carignan, an associate professor at the University of Sherbrooke and one of the co-authors of the study, about 10 per cent of respondents believed at least one of the six theories.

Carignan said that because the sample size is quite small, and due to the margin of error, 10 per cent may be a conservative estimate, and there can be a higher level of agreement on individual theories.

She cautioned that the findings of the study are preliminary, and that team will have the results of a survey of 1,500 Canadians two weeks from now. Eventually their work will expand to include six countries. 

Carignan said the six theories were:

  • My government is hiding important information about coronavirus.
  • Coronavirus was intentionally made in a lab.
  • Coronavirus was manufactured in a lab by mistake.
  • The pharmaceutical industry is involved in the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Coronavirus medication already exists.
  • There's a link between 5G technology and the coronavirus.

One of the most popular conspiracy theories of the pandemic is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was genetically engineered in a laboratory, possibly as a biological weapon. While just over half of those surveyed said they believe the virus occurred naturally, nearly a third said they believe it was created in a lab. 

But virologists around the world say they would be able to tell if the virus has been modified in a lab, and there are no signs that is the case. It is possible the virus could have been studied in a lab and then leaked accidentally, but it's not probable, they say.

The survey also found that around 15 per cent of respondents believe that the pharmaceutical industry is involved in the spread of the coronavirus.

Another popular theory links the virus with 5G wireless network technology. But Quebecers were less inclined to believe it than those outside the province: just 7.8 per cent of Quebec respondents, compared to 15 per cent of respondents in the rest of Canada. 

Carignan says she's not sure why there's such a difference but speculated it could be that conspiracy theories that originate in English may not spread as well to French speakers, but she says the issue requires further study.

The 5G conspiracy theory has gained traction this month: Google searches about 5G skyrocketed at the beginning of April, compared to the previous year.

But any perceived link between 5G technology and the coronavirus has been thoroughly debunked.

WATCH | Virologist explains why he is certain the pandemic was not caused by 5G

Kindrachuk explains why he is certain the global pandemic has been caused by a virus and not 5G. 0:42

Roughly 38 per cent of respondents believe their government is hiding important information about the coronavirus. Carignan says that matters because people who are less likely to trust their government may be more likely to believe conspiracy theories. 

Most common myths

Meanwhile, a team at Ryerson University in Toronto has identified the most common types of disinformation related to COVID-19 by creating real-time dashboards that track the work done by fact-checkers around the world.

The group looked at 2,000 debunked claims by fact-checkers and found seven prevalent types of disinformation, which are displayed on two dashboards — a global one and a Canadian one: 

  • Fake tests and cures.

  • Speculation on the origin of the virus.

  • Unproven attributes of the virus.

  • Fake websites purporting to be authorities or government entities.

  • False claims about brands and their involvement with the virus.

  • Rumours about celebrities getting ill or dying from the virus.

  • Blaming certain ethnic groups or religions for spreading the virus.

Philip Mai, co-director of the Ryerson Social Media Lab and one of the researchers behind the dashboard, said that the team's work on misinformation in the political sphere showed them misinformation follows patterns. Helping people spot the patterns could help them recognize misinformation more easily. 

"We want to educate the public as to what to look for so that they can inoculate themselves against this kind of stuff, because there's only so many fact-checkers in the world," said Mai, adding that most people don't have the time to chase down every claim.

"The idea is you can learn, arm yourself with information, so that next time you see a version of one of these types of misinformation, you can say, 'Oh, that sounds like something I've heard before, and I think that's not correct,'" Mai said.

"At least it makes you question things as opposed to [hitting] that share button without thinking," said Mai.

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