A significant number of Americans believe misinformation about the origins of the coronavirus and the recent presidential election, as well as conspiracy theories like QAnon, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.
Forty percent of respondents said they believe the coronavirus was made in a lab in China even though there is no evidence for this. Scientists say the virus was transmitted to humans from another species.
And one-third of Americans believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election, despite the fact that courts, election officials and the Department of Justice have found no evidence of widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome.
The poll results add to mounting evidence that misinformation is gaining a foothold in American society and that conspiracy theories are going mainstream, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. This has raised concerns about how to get people to believe in a "baseline reality," said Chris Jackson, a pollster with Ipsos.
"Increasingly people are willing to say and believe stuff that fits in with their view of how the world should be, even if it doesn't have any basis in reality or fact," Jackson said.
"What this poll really illustrates to me is how willing people are to believe things that are ludicrous because it fits in with a worldview that they want to believe."
The NPR/Ipsos poll of 1,115 U.S. adults was conducted Dec. 21-22. The margin of error for the overall sample is 3.3 percentage points.
One of the most striking poll findings has to do with QAnon, the baseless conspiracy theory that gained widespread attention this year as two of its backers were elected to Congress.
The poll asked respondents whether they believe that "a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media," the false allegation at the heart of QAnon. While only 17% said it was true, another 37% said they didn't know.
"It's total bonkers," said Jackson, "and yet ... essentially half of Americans believe it's true, or think that maybe it's true. They don't really know. And I think that's terrifying that half of Americans believe that could be the case."
According to the poll, 39% of Americans believe another key tenet of the QAnon theory: that there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.
The president is himself a major source of misinformation, as he continues to make baseless claims about election fraud on Twitter and elsewhere. Conservative media also have devoted hours of coverage to exaggerated or debunked claims.
The NPR/Ipsos poll suggests those claims are having an impact. Two-thirds of Republicans surveyed said they believe that voter fraud helped Biden win the election, and fewer than half of Republicans said they would accept the outcome of the election.
"There's just too much information out there," said Brooke Williams, a Republican voter and self-described QAnon follower from Oro Valley, Ariz., during a follow-up interview with NPR. "I can't see how anybody is not thoroughly convinced that Biden was illegally elected."
In contrast, only 11% of Democrats think voter fraud helped Biden win the election, and 93% accept the outcome.
Whom Americans trust
Overall, most respondents said they do want to see a peaceful transition to a Biden administration in January, though many are worried about political violence over the next four years.
The vast majority of Americans said they're also worried about the spread of false information, with four out of five poll respondents saying they're concerned about misinformation related to the coronavirus and vaccines in particular.
But Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe misinformation about the virus, including that it was created in a lab in China and that COVID-19 is no more of a "serious threat" than the seasonal flu.
"I think it was deliberately released by China," said Jon Costello, a Republican from Huntsville, Ala., who responded to the poll. "I think this big thing of shutting down businesses, shutting down education systems ... is all part of a plan to break the spirit and the will of Americans."
Poll respondents of both parties expressed skepticism about the vaccines that are now being distributed in the U.S., though Republicans were less likely than Democrats to say that they would "take the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is made available to me."
"I shouldn't have to take a vaccine for something that was man-made," said Shaena Castro, a Democrat who lives in New York City. "I guess you can call me a conspiracy theorist or whatever, but yeah, I am convinced that it's man-made."
When asked whom they trust, respondents mostly pointed to the people they encounter in their daily lives. Personal physicians scored highly, as did faith or spiritual leaders.
Politicians and media figures did not fare as well. Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Rachel Maddow of MSNBC and Wolf Blitzer of CNN were near the bottom of the list.
More Americans trust Biden than Trump, but both lagged behind Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who scored the highest of any specific person the poll asked about.
New misinformation Vs. old conspiracy
Pollsters say there are multiple factors that make people more or less susceptible to misinformation — including educational attainment, media consumption and political affiliation — and that people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that fit into their worldview.
For example, almost half of respondents said that the majority of racial justice protests over the summer were violent, when in fact the vast majority were peaceful. Poll respondents from all demographics answered this question incorrectly — but they were even more likely to do so if they were Republicans, and if they got their news from Fox News or conservative online outlets like Breitbart or The Daily Caller.
Recent misinformation held more sway than some older conspiracy theories.
About 60% of Americans correctly answered that President Barack Obama was born in the United States, and that several mass shootings in recent years were not staged hoaxes. And about 70% correctly answered that humans do play a significant role in climate change — roughly the same number who believe astronauts landed on the moon in the 1960s and '70s.
It's also clear from the poll results that Americans are worried about misinformation, even if there's no clear prescription for what to do about it.
Nearly 70% of respondents said they are concerned that information they receive on social media is inaccurate and about foreign interference in U.S. social media.
"I'm concerned to see so many people living in a false reality, seeing relatives honestly believe that this was some kind of rigged election," said William Street, who lives in northeast Mississippi.
"It terrifies me that people can be that misled and believe conspiracy theories like that," Street tells NPR. "I'm concerned that with even just a little prodding from this man in office, they could be led to do very desperate things."