Using Social Networks to Explain Beliefs in COVID-19 Conspiracies
“Should we think of these beliefs as expressions of people’s frustration with their social status independently of the pandemic? Or are these beliefs rooted in fears prompted by the pandemic’s economic consequences? Are conspiracy beliefs somehow related to people’s ideologies or social networks?” These are the questions that Prof. Josip Glaurdić and his team tried to answer by analyzing the results of a survey they conducted in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in April and May 2020. The survey was administered using a dedicated web platform and mobile app where more than 7,000 respondents were recruited using the social network Facebook.
The first results indicate that beliefs in coronavirus conspiracies are likelier among women, respondents with lower education, as well as respondents with lower incomes.
Social network, a fertile ground for conspiracies
Media consumption appeared to be a strong determinant as well. Respondents getting their news from traditional media sources like television were less likely to believe in conspiracy theories than those getting information from social media. This finding is in line with previous research showing that social networks can be fertile breeding grounds for conspiracies. This subject has become even more important during the coronavirus crisis with people’s social contacts being limited, leaving more space for online resources and social media. What is particularly important, the team’s research project shows that people sharing the same beliefs about conspiracies are more likely to be connected on social media: conspiracy believers and non-believers are likely to inhabit social bubbles of the like-minded.
The survey also gave space to respondents to express at some length whom they believed was responsible for the outbreak of the pandemic. Using the newest tools of natural language processing and network analysis, the research team was able to uncover the discursive contrast between those who believe in conspiracy theories and those who do not. While the conspiracy non-believers tended to express themselves in terms of individual responsibility or consequences of globalization, conspiracy believers were far more likely to use the discourse of blame that dominantly lay with international actors such as China or the World Health Organization (WHO).
Conducted in Southeast Europe, an environment particularly susceptible to the negative consequences of both the virus and conspiracy theories due to its past, the findings are nevertheless relevant for many European societies. Indeed, the region’s international position, its transitional as well as post-conflict past create a setting that is comparatively relevant.
Research findings indicate that combatting the spread of the virus and addressing its consequences is not possible when citizens subscribe to conspiracy theories, because conspiracy believers are less likely to engage in socially safe and responsible behavior during such crisis.
This project is part of a larger effort of Prof. Glaurdić and his team at better understanding the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on European societies and political competition.