According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 44 percent of Republicans believe that Bill Gates is plotting to use a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign as a pretext to implant microchips in billions of people and monitor their movements — a widely debunked conspiracy theory with no basis in fact.
The survey, which was conducted May 20 and 21, found that only 26 percent of Republicans correctly identify the story as false.
In contrast, just 19 percent of Democrats believe the same spurious narrative about the Microsoft founder and public-health philanthropist. A majority of Democrats recognize that it’s not true.
As states relax their lockdown restrictions and responsibility for containing the coronavirus shifts, in part, to the American people, the vast gap between the right and the left over Gates reflects a growing problem: the dangerous, destabilizing tendency to ignore fundamental facts about the deadly pathogen in favor of misinformation peddled by partisans, including President Trump, and spread on social media.
That tendency is more widespread on the right, although liberals also believe some false narratives (including that COVID-19 deaths have already surged in states that were quick to reopen).
The new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that this “choose your own reality” effect is distorting perceptions of nearly every aspect of the pandemic, from reopening to vaccination to the official death toll. A broad majority of the public is either “very” (56 percent) or “somewhat” concerned (30 percent) about “false or misleading information being communicated about coronavirus.” That sentiment, at least, is not partisan: More than 80 percent of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree.
The result, in many cases, is two different sets of “facts” — only one of which resembles the truth.
Take the Gates example. Half of all Americans (50 percent) who name Fox News as their primary television news source believe the disproven conspiracy theory, and 44 percent of voters who cast ballots for Trump in 2016 do as well — even though neither Fox nor Trump has promoted it. At the same time, just 15 percent of MSNBC viewers and 12 percent of Clinton voters say the story is true.
The spread of such an outlandish charge may seem silly, but it could have catastrophic consequences. Through his namesake foundation, the tech billionaire has long championed vaccines in developing countries. So far, he has committed $300 million to combating the coronavirus. If large portions of the public believe that Gates’s intent is nefarious — and if they go on to convince themselves that any coronavirus vaccine will be dangerous — then many may refuse to get vaccinated. (There is a parallel sentiment among some evangelicals to resist vaccination out of fear it would constitute the “mark of the beast” mentioned in the Book of Revelation.)
The more people refuse to get vaccinated, the harder it becomes to end the pandemic.
The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey shows that skepticism about a possible coronavirus vaccine is already taking root on the right. There is little partisan disagreement over vaccines in general: 83 percent of Americans consider childhood vaccines either “somewhat” or “very” safe, and more than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans share this view. The same goes for concerns over the safety of “fast-tracking” the vaccine through the typical research and regulatory process: 73 percent of Americans are at least somewhat concerned, with little difference by party affiliation.
But when it comes to actually getting vaccinated, Clinton voters are nearly 30 points more likely to say they will (72 percent) than Trump voters (44 percent). A majority of Trump voters say either that they plan to skip the shot (29 percent) or that they aren’t sure (27 percent), even though the president himself has been pushing hard for a vaccine.
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