Nearly half of Canadians can’t tell coronavirus fact from conspiracy theory: survey

Almost half of Canadians believe at least one popular coronavirus conspiracy theory or myth, including 26 per cent who believe COVID-19 is a Chinese-engineered bioweapon released from a lab, according to a new survey from Carleton University.

In an interview, Carleton University journalism professor Josh Greenberg said study authors found popular conspiracy “memes” are seeded and distributed in the “highly fragmented” information-sharing landscape of social messaging apps such as Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok.

“It used to be that the media landscape had a centre, what we now call legacy news organizations,” Greenberg said. “But increasingly, we get news from not only those sources but also dubious actors. Everyone is a news organization now.”

These apps convey relatively little information and context per message, but ideas can take root quickly, he said. Greenberg and his co-researchers found survey respondents who believed conspiracies were more likely to share news or opinion about COVID-19 on social media.

Greenberg said the most widely believed COVID-19 theory in Canada was a “widely discredited conspiracy theory that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab and released into the general population.”

As Global News has reported, a previous Canadian study found a similar theory claiming that a United States bioweapon caused the novel coronavirus was evidently disseminated by People’s Republic of China diplomats, who used Twitter to amplify the theory from a Canadian website linked to Russian propaganda. Neither theory has any conclusive proof.

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Most experts say it is likely the virus came from a Wuhan wet market. But in a recent interview with Global News, China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, did not rule out a lab accident in Wuhan.

“You know that is a very serious question for the scientists to answer. And all the available evidence now suggests the virus itself is not manmade, it comes from nature,” he said. “And for us, we should let the scientists to answer that question rather than to hear from some politicians.”

Misplaced confidence

Sarah Everts, a Carleton journalism professor and co-researcher in the study, said she was “floored by the overconfidence Canadians have in their own ability to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation.”

For example, 58 per cent of respondents who believe the 5G conspiracy theory also said they could “easily distinguish” between COVID-19 facts and misinformation. And almost half who believed the Chinese bioweapon theory said the same.

“Everyone has fallen prey at some point to misinformation on social media,” Everts said. “Anyone who thinks that it’s easy to distinguish conspiracy theories and misinformation is at high risk of being fooled.”

Greenberg said study authors concluded that public health agencies and experts need to “push back” on misinformation. But they are placed at a disadvantage with “purveyors of conspiracy” who have mastered well-crafted, shareable, social media-friendly stories.

“Public health experts need a more sophisticated social media ground game,” Greenberg said.

The public opinion survey was a project of Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication and supported by Abacus Data. The survey was conducted with 2,000 Canadian residents from May 5 to 8, 2020. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.19 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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