Faculty Blog

Using Social Networks to Explain Beliefs in COVID-19 Conspiracies

Each crisis brings with it its share of revelations. The coronavirus crisis did not escape this reality. The pandemic has exposed a number of medical, economic, social and political weaknesses of our societies. Particularly, it has exposed the vulnerabilities of 21st century humankind when it comes to making reasoned decisions based on facts and data, rather than on instincts, prejudice, wishful thinking or conspiracy theories. Researchers from the social sciences department tried to understand the determinants of people’s beliefs in conspiracy theories related to COVID-19.

“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.

Assigning blame

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. 

People related to this project

Similar projects

Behavioural & Cognitive Sciences
How confinement measures and their communication impact elders
Since the start of the health crisis, people over the age of 60 have been omnipresent in the media, portrayed as a "risk group". Even though older people might have a higher risk when affected by Covid-19, considering them as one homogeneous group would be a mistake. The CRISIS research project, supported by the FNR (Luxembourg National Research Fund) and carried out in collaboration with RBS-Center fir Altersfroen, looks at the impact of aging stereotypes on psychological well-being and health-related outcomes in older Luxembourgers.
COVID-KIDS : how the pandemic affects children and adolescents?
Schools in Luxembourg are soon to reopen; some students have already been back now. Yet many questions remain. A central argument for reopening schools is that home schooling may increase educational inequalities and that children and teens can no longer cope with social isolation. These issues are now being explored in a study launched by researchers at the University of Luxembourg.
Education & Social Work
Investigating student’s learning satisfaction and well-being in the context of imposed remote teaching during the COVID-19 crisis
The department of Education and Social work launches a survey to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on student’s learning ability. This survey will be disseminated to all the students of the University of Luxembourg. The findings will help researchers to gain useful insights into weaknesses and strengths of imposed remote teaching.
Faculty Blog
Borders in Times of Covid-19
This week, Christian Wille, director of the UniGR-Center for Borders Studies, shares his thoughts and observations on borders in times of the Covid-19.
Territorial borders and social demarcation processes are becoming dramatically more important during the coronavirus pandemic. A concise example is the 25th anniversary of the Schengen Agreement that coincides with border control tightening and the closure of internal EU borders. The “Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services” issued by the EU Commission on March 16th, 2020 currently ensure that despite the re/bordering processes, the borders remain open for tightly timed supply chains, cross-border commuters, and for a country’s own citizens.