Belief in COVID conspiracy theories growing as trust in Dr. Fauci dips, survey reveals

PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — Misinformation about COVID-19 continues to influence millions of Americans, impacting their decisions on getting the coronavirus vaccine for themselves and their families, a new poll reveals. Moreover, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found more Americans now believe the conspiracy theory that the virus was created for use as a biological weapon.

The November survey, the fourth conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2021, examined the changing beliefs among 1,600 U.S. adults as the coronavirus pandemic reaches the end of its second year. In general, the team says some of the information many respondents are choosing to believe is making them more hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Specifically, there is a growing divide between respondents who continue to trust the government’s health officials (like Dr. Anthony Fauci) and those who now have no confidence in their motives at all.

“Key consequential deceptions continue to predict hesitancy for oneself and one’s children and a reluctance to get a booster,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) in a media release. “Even though more people reject these conspiracies and misbeliefs than accept them, those that have become deeply rooted need to be repeatedly fact-checked, highlighted, and countered by media organizations and health care providers.”

Conspiracy concerns

Although some COVID-related conspiracy theories are becoming less popular this year, the poll finds a growing number of people now blame China for the creation of COVID-19. One in three respondents (31%) say they believe the theory that the Chinese government created COVID to use as a weapon. That’s an eight-percent increase over the 23 percent who believed this in March of 2020.

The team finds more people (79%) now reject the conspiracy theory Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates supported the creation of a COVID vaccine containing a microchip which tracks patients after injection. That’s up from 71 percent who believed it in April 2021. Meanwhile, 21 percent still believe this is true or aren’t sure.

As for the actual COVID vaccine itself, 56 percent correctly answered that the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines do not contain fetal tissue. However, more people are buying into this idea now (15%) than they did in September (11%) or April (9%). Three in 10 still aren’t sure about the ingredients of the coronavirus vaccine.

Faith in Fauci falling

Researchers also looked at the impact media outlets are having on the nation’s trust in health officials during the pandemic. While the overall confidence in Dr. Anthony Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) — remains fairly constant, opinions about him are becoming more and more divided.

The poll finds 36 percent now have the “highest degree of confidence” in Dr. Fauci’s pandemic leadership, down from 41 percent in April. Overall, the same number say they are “very confident” or “somewhat confident” in Fauci’s judgement, although more people are moving into the “somewhat” category.

On the other hand, more Americans with an unfavorable opinion of Dr. Fauci now say they have no confidence at all in him (16%), increasing from 12 percent in April.

Study authors say much of this has to do with consumers of conservative-leaning new outlets losing confidence in both Fauci and the nation’s various health agencies. The team cites conservative commentators and hosts using graphic and satirical insults such as “Lord Fauci, Patron Saint of Wuhan” for the recent drop in support.

“These attacks on Dr. Fauci are worrisome,” Jamieson adds. “Many months of adverse coverage may be having an effect. Lower confidence in Dr. Fauci and public health agencies and acceptance of conspiracy theories and misinformation both predict a lower likelihood of vaccinating oneself and one’s children, and taking a COVID-19 booster.”

Most trust their doctor over the government

Study authors report that among those who get their news from “very conservative” sources like Newsmax, only 50 percent express confidence in the CDC, 54 percent trust the FDA, and 46 percent support Dr. Fauci. Slightly more people who watch “conservative” sources like Fox News support the CDC (59%), the FDA (64%), and Dr. Fauci (47%).

However, around nine in 10 consumers of conservative-leaning news sources note they put their trust in a primary health care provider when it comes to pandemic information and decision-making.

Conversely, people who get their news from social media or mainstream media outlets report having much more confidence in government health officials.

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