COVID-Denial, Election-Denial Not Far Apart, OSU Researchers Found

COVID-19 was ripe for conspiracy; now, researchers are seeing that bleed into the midterm election.

click to enlarge Scene outside the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday after the Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election. - Photo: Jake Zuckerman
Photo: Jake Zuckerman
Scene outside the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday after the Associated Press declared Joe Biden the winner of the presidential election.

You’ve probably heard of “gateway” drugs, but a group of researchers at Ohio State University say there’s such a thing as a “gateway conspiracy.”

A duo of surveys done by psychology researchers and supported by the National Science Foundation seek to bolster the field of “conspiracy theory research,” which an announcement of the study said “to date has tended to look for traits that predict the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories at a given point in time.”

The “gateway conspiracy” that OSU researchers tested in the surveys “argues that conspiracy theory beliefs prompted by a single event lead to increases in conspiratorial thinking over time.”

One survey asked 501 people questions “assessing their beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories, political ideology” and their affinity for the theories in June 2020.

About 100 of the participants came back in December of the same year and were asked “statements gauging their level of conspiratorial thinking,” including their believe in the false idea that there had been extensive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Results from the surveys show those that believed false theories about the pandemic were “more likely to later report they believed that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from Donald Trump through widespread voter fraud, which is also not true.”

A snowball of distrust

A possible trigger for these beliefs? A sense of distrust, according to OSU psychology professor Russell Fazio, senior author of the survey study.

“It’s speculative, but it appears that once people adopt one conspiracy belief, it promotes distrust in institutions more generally — it could be government, science, the media, whatever,” Fazio said in announcing the study.

COVID-19 was ripe for conspiracy because individuals felt a lack of control, according to Fazio’s fellow study author, Javier Granados Samayoa.

“With COVID-19, there was this large event that people could not control, so how could they make sense of it? One way is by adhering to conspiracy theories.”

Tamping down conspiracy thinking at the source

The study also found that the high likelihood of rabbit-hole-opening theories causing negative outcomes for believers and those around the believers spotlights the importance of tamping down COVID-19 conspiracies.

“Not only do COVID-19 conspiracy theories threaten lives and economies in the present, they may also create problems down the road by leading to heightened conspiracist ideation,” the study stated. “Policymakers would be wise to consult the research that has tested strategies by which belief in conspiracy theories can be blunted.”

Those policymakers could include conspiracy theorists, if the November election ends up a certain way. From U.S. Congress, all the way down the general election ballot, there are candidates who questioned the validity of the 2020 election and claimed voter fraud.
One such candidate, Terpsehore “Tore” Maras, independent candidate for secretary of state, asked the Ohio Supreme Court to change the rules when it comes to election observers and allow her to choose her own observers, against the legal mandate that four other candidates also petition for more poll watchers.

That case has yet to be decided.

This story was originally published in the Ohio Capital Journal and republished here with permission.

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