Every week, surveys from all across the EU tell us what Europeans are thinking, feeling and talking about. In our segment, eupinions echo, we collect these voices and play them back to you. Each week, we highlight one survey of particular interest in a short blogpost and share daily new survey results via our website and our twitter channel.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented the international community with challenges unprecedented in modern times. Some of the responses, such as nation-wide lockdowns and the closures of most international borders were equally unprecedented. While based on prevalent expert- and scientific consensus, the unfamiliarity with such policy responses still had the unfortunate side effect that it led to the rise of several conspiracy theories among the world’s population.
This is troubling in more than one way. Not only can conspiracy theories erode the principles of democracy by causing people to lose trust in democratic processes, but, in times like the ones we are facing right now, they can also turn into public health hazards to the extent that their supporters break public health regulations. Such behaviour was recently observed in big European cities such as Berlin and London.
In order to gage the full extent of conspiratorial believes in the population, the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung now published a new study, reporting the results of over 3,000 interviews conducted in Germany between the months of June and July 2020. The results are sobering.
There are two main parts to the KAS Study. First it explores the degree to which people believe in generally accepted expert consensus. To do that, the study presents respondents with three statements that each reflect current expert- and scientific consensus in a specific field. Respondents could indicate whether they thought each statement was definitely true, likely true, likely false or definitely false.
In the field of climate change, a total of 8% of Germans believed that the concept of severe, man-made climate change was either likely false or definitely false, with 2% of the population believing it is definitely false. On the issue of foreign state interference, a total of 19% of Germans viewed the statement that Russian intelligence services were killing individuals on foreign soil as either likely false or definitely false. And finally, on the topic of medicine and vaccines, 15% of or respondents held the opinion that the measles vaccine posed a greater threat than the illness itself. In total, 11% of the German respondents contradicted at least one statement backed by scientific expert consensus.
In part two, the study asks respondents to indicate how confident they are in the truth of the following statement: "There are secret powers controlling the world". This intentionally vague statement was chosen to measure a population's general willingness to believe in conspiracy theories. And even though a majority of respondents answered that the statement was either definitely or likely false, nearly a third of respondents (30%) thought the statement to be either likely or definitely true. When asked about who those "secret powers" likely were, answers varied widely. 13% of those who believed in a world conspiracy believed that big banks and companies were involved, 12% named foreign intelligence services like the NSA, CIA or Mossad, while others (11%) believed that influential families like the Rothschilds or Rockefellers are pulling the strings.
So where do we go from here? With nearly a third of Germany's population seemingly open to conspiracy theories, one cannot simply write off this current trend as a simple fringe issue, insignificant to the population as a whole. In our previous study ‘Fear Not Values: Public Opinion and the Populist Vote in Europe’, we explored the various factors that go into populist voting behaviour in Europe and around the world, focussing primarily on the factors of fear and anxiety. Declining trust in expert consensus, together with a population's collective willingness to distrust democratic institutions and a tendency to turn to so-called alternative facts, plays an important role in populist voting, too.
The key to any functioning democracy is a well-informed electorate. Consequently, the larger the part of the population that does not believe in conventional expert consensus and scientific analysis, the more we risk to undermine democracy itself. Unfortunately, we currently see how influential leaders around the world, most notably the President of the United States, seek to deliberately instrumentalise conspiracy theories to their advantage – even if only by exhibiting a vague ambiguity towards them. Such worrying developments should serve as wake-up calls, reminding us of the importance to re-establish trust in those parts of the population that we appear to have lost. Not only to avoid unnecessary public health hazards in the immediate wake of the Covid-19 crisis, but also to counter the fundamental threat that conspiracy theories can pose to the very foundations of democracy in the longer run.
If you liked this instalment of eupinions Echo, you might also be interested in these reads:
- Fear not Values
Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe
- Europeans See Immigration as Biggest Security Threat Ahead of Climate Change and Terrorism
EU citizens show greater trust in their own governments than in EU to secure and improve military defence
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About the surveys: The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung employed the polling company infratest dimap to conduct a total of 3,250 interviews between October 2019 and February 2020.