COVID misinformation fueled by right-wing media has reached 80% of Americans

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A new survey finds that wide swaths of the American public believe vaccine conspiracies repeated by Fox News, Newsmax, and other right-wing outlets.

Nearly eight out of 10 Americans believe or are unsure about misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines, according to a new poll, a startling finding that demonstrates just how widespread COVID conspiracies have become in the United States.

In a survey released Monday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, respondents were asked if they'd heard about eight common falsehoods related to the pandemic and whether they believed them. A total of 78% said that they'd heard at least one and believed it to be true or were unsure of its accuracy. One-third believed or were unsure about four or more COVID lies. Just 22% of those polled said they didn't believe any of the conspiracies.

The KFF findings, published as part of the Foundation's ongoing "KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor" research project tracking Americans' behaviors and attitudes toward COVID shots, provide more evidence for the ubiquity of COVID-19 health misinformation. "Misinformation about health care topics is nothing new," the KFF researchers wrote in their analysis, "but social media, the polarization of news sources, and the pace of scientific development on COVID-19 have all contributed to an environment that makes it easier than ever for ambiguous information, misinterpretation, and deliberate disinformation to spread."

The most popular false claim among those surveyed was that the government is "exaggerating" the number of COVID-19 deaths, a fallacy supported by 38% of respondents. Another 22% said they'd heard that claim and weren't sure whether or not it was true.

In fact, many public health experts believe the pandemic death toll — just over 750,000 in the United States as of Nov. 9 — has been undercounted. According to researchers with the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the number of Americans who've died of COVID-19 is likely closer to 900,000.

Over one-fifth of survey respondents expressed openness to another bogus theory: that the COVID vaccines alter your DNA. Of those polled, 8% said they believed that was the case, with another 13% saying they weren't sure one way or the other.

Though a relatively small proportion of Americans appear to buy into that theory, it's fueled some dangerous acts of extremism. In February, a Wisconsin hospital pharmacist pleaded guilty to tampering with hundreds of doses of COVID vaccines, purposefully removing a box containing vials of the Moderna vaccine from refrigeration, according to the Department of Justice. The man told law enforcement officials that he believed COVID-19 vaccines were "not safe for people and could harm them and change their DNA," police said.

The DNA conspiracy takes its roots from a non-peer-reviewed paper by two MIT biologists published in December of 2020 and soundly criticized by the medical research community for misrepresenting its findings. The theory soon found its way to articles on popular anti-vax websites that were, for months, frequently shared in QAnon and conspiracy-adjacent Telegram channels, some of which have tens of thousands of followers. Months later, reporters for far-right media networks like Newsmax are still pushing the debunked conspiracy theory.

In their analysis of the survey data, KFF researchers explored the relationship between COVID misinformation and the news sources most trusted by those who believe the conspiracies. Those who said they trusted right-wing news outlets like Fox News, One America News, and Newsmax were disproportionately more likely to say they believed COVID conspiracies. Some 46% of those who trusted Newsmax for information said they believed four or more COVID falsehoods, while 37% of those who trusted OAN and 36% of those who trusted Fox said the same. Among those who said they trusted NPR, MSNBC, CNN, or network news outlets, the number who believed four or more COVID conspiracy theories was under 15%.

Belief in COVID misinformation was also highly correlated with vaccination status: Of those who were unvaccinated, 64% said they believed four or more conspiracies, while just 19% of vaccinated respondents said the same. The KFF researchers stressed that, as with their findings on belief in misinformation and right-wing media, it is difficult to disaggregate cause and effect in the data. It might be the case that those who believe misinformation are exposed to it on those channels, for example, but it also could be that people who watch those channels are predisposed to believe misinformation for other reasons.

Yet as the American Independent Foundation has previously reported, individuals' attitudes about vaccination often shift based on cues from their political and social leaders; in other words, people are more willing to get vaccinated when prominent figures they like and trust say they should.

That's why officials so often struggle to counter misinformation when it comes from popular figures like NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers or prominent elected officials like Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). As recently as Monday, Johnson falsely told listeners of a radio show, "There's no medical necessity for vaccines in children" days after the CDC recommended the COVID vaccine for children ages 5-11. Doctors and health officials continue to stress the importance of pediatric vaccination to protect children's health and slow the spread of the virus.

It's not just that COVID misinformation drives up vaccine hesitancy in a country in which nearly a third of those over 12 years old are not fully vaccinated: The falsehoods also contribute to an ongoing rise in COVID-related extremism and violence.

Amid the delta variant surge over the summer and the renewal of mask mandates and other mitigation measures, extremism experts warned of the likelihood of a spike in COVID-related violence coming from anti-vaccine communities.

Since then, there has indeed been a steady rise in incidents of violence and harassment at vaccination clinics and schools, where violent far-right extremists and anti-vaxxers have combined efforts to protest COVID safety measures intended to keep students and teachers safe.

Amid all this, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Tuesday released a step-by-step toolkit for individuals to use in combating misinformation in their own communities, stressing the need not to shame or blame those who believe falsehoods, but rather to help guide them to more reputable resources.

"During the COVID 19 pandemic, misinformation has in fact cost people their lives," Murthy told ABC News ahead of the toolkit's release. "So we don't have an option to give up."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.