LEILA FADEL, HOST:
There's evidence that conspiracy theories are becoming more and more mainstream in American society. That's according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll out today. The poll gave people a sort of test to see if they could spot misinformation like the coronavirus was created in a lab or that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election. And a lot of people failed. NPR's Joel Rose joins me now with the details. Hello.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.
FADEL: So let's start with the coronavirus. There's a lot of misinformation out there from full-on COVID denial to people thinking it's just a flu. What did the poll find?
ROSE: This is something that people said they were really worried about. Eighty percent say they're concerned about the spread of false information, specifically around COVID and the vaccines. But at the same time, 40% of poll respondents believe one of the biggest conspiracy theories that's out there about the virus, that it was made in a lab in China. There is no evidence for this. And scientists say that the virus was transmitted to humans from another species. But I talked to people all over the country who responded to our poll and they still believe this.
JOHN COSTELLO: Yes, I think it was deliberately released by China. I think it was a deliberate act that was done.
TERESA WEIR: They've intentionally set this off.
SHEANA CASTRO: I guess you can call me a conspiracy theorist or whatever, but I am convinced that it's man-made.
ROSE: That was Jon Costello (ph) of Huntsville, Ala., Teresa Weir (ph) of Joliet, Ill., and Sheana Castro (ph) of New York City.
FADEL: So one big source of misinformation has been the president who continues to make baseless claims of a stolen election on Twitter and elsewhere. Can we tell how those claims are landing?
ROSE: Well, our poll found that one-third of Americans believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the election, despite the fact that courts and election officials have found no evidence of this. But right-wing media have been devoting hours and hours to exaggerated or debunked claims. Brooke Williams is a Republican voter from Oro Valley, Ariz., and she thinks President Trump rightfully won the election.
BROOKE WILLIAMS: There was just too much, too much information out there. I can't see how anybody is not thoroughly convinced that Biden was illegally elected.
ROSE: Again, to be clear, there is no evidence that widespread fraud affected the outcome of the election. Still, Republicans in particular believe that there was - two-thirds according to our survey - and fewer than half of Republicans say they accept the outcome of the election.
FADEL: What about this debunked QAnon conspiracy theory? A couple of members of Congress are subscribers to this. How much buy-in is there to this theory based on the polls?
ROSE: That's another number from our poll that really jumps out. We asked whether people believe that, quote, "a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media," unquote, which is the false allegation at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Less than half of respondents were willing to rule that out; 17% said it was true. Another large group, more than a third, said they just don't know. I talked about this with Chris Jackson at Ipsos, which conducted the poll.
CHRIS JACKSON: It's total bonkers. And yet, essentially half of Americans believe it is true or, you know, think that maybe it's true. They don't really know, right? And I think that's terrifying that half of Americans sort of believe that that could be the case.
ROSE: Another finding of this poll is that 39% of Americans believe another key tenet of QAnon, that there is a deep state that is working to undermine President Trump.
FADEL: Wow, those numbers are jarring. You know, but in this digital age, it feels like everyone is susceptible to misinformation. Were there any indicators of why a person might buy into one theory or another?
ROSE: Pollsters tell us that people tend to believe misinformation that fits into their worldview. For instance, we asked about racial justice protests over the summer. Almost half of respondents believe that the majority were violent when actually the vast majority of protests were peaceful. Poll respondents from all demographics got this one wrong consistently, but they were even more likely to get it wrong if they were a Republican who watches Fox News or reads conservative online outlets like Breitbart or The Daily Caller.
FADEL: So, OK, all these people are buying into these theories. What's the big deal if people believe in something that's not true?
ROSE: This misinformation, even if it is pure fantasy, can have real-world consequences. If people think the coronavirus is no more deadly than the seasonal flu, they may be less likely to wear masks or less likely to get the vaccines when they become available. And if people think there is widespread fraud in our elections, they probably don't think that the Biden administration is legitimate. They may be less likely to believe that their political opponents are acting in good faith and less likely to believe in democracy, period.
FADEL: Wow. Joel Rose, thank you so much for joining us.
ROSE: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "YETI'S LAMENT")
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