New Study Finds Trump Tweets May Increase Anti-Vaxx Attitudes

New research shows that Trump's tweets increase anti-vaxx sentiment.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

The only true and permanent solution to the pandemic is a vaccine, but a vaccine is only effective if the majority of the country actually goes ahead and gets it. We have seen deadly epidemics from standard flu outbreaks in communities where conspiracy thinking and anti-vaccination attitudes are trendy.

2020 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology titled "Donald Trump and vaccination: The effect of political identity, conspiracist ideation and presidential tweets on vaccine hesitancy" found that the president's anti-vaccination tweets significantly increased distrust of vaccines among his supporters. This suggests that COVID-19 may be with us a lot longer than expected. 

In the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Queensland, self-identified Trump supporters were presented with tweets from Donald Trump’s twitter account and given a survey that asked whether they shared these views, and if so, why. The scientists found that Trump supporters were much more likely to believe that vaccines had dangerous side effects, and were also more likely to not get their children vaccinated.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the survey data revealed that those who held these beliefs were also more likely to believe in a wide range of conspiracy theories, such as that 9/11 was an inside job and that Princess Diana was intentionally assassinated. Conspiratorial thinking may shape (or be shaped by) a worldview of distrust not just in authority, but in general—including mainstream views like medicine.

The president has been a catalyst in making conspiracy-theory thinking go mainstream. Professor Matthew Hornsey, who led the study, stated that “Trump is the most conspiracy-friendly President in memory: he’s spread several conspiracy theories in the past, like Obama faking his birth certificate, climate change being a hoax invented by the Chinese, and Ted Cruz’s father helping assassinate JFK.” This statement is supported by his findings, which showed that Trump voters became increasingly “anti-vaxx” after reading his old tweets. This finding suggests that Trump truly has the power to shape his supporters’ views in a broad and direct sense. When he called the virus a "Democratic hoax" at a South Carolina rally, it likely had real psychological effects.

The results of this study reveal that the war against COVID may really be a war against misinformation. If the U.S. population as a whole does not adopt the coronavirus vaccine, Americans will never fully be safe from its effects. The epidemic could drag out for a much longer period of time, crippling an already weak economy and destroying thousands of lives. 

For this reason, as a nation we should collectively urge Donald Trump to address the country with a speech that unequivocally denounces all past statements about the dangers of vaccines, and ideally, all his statements that promote conspiracy theories. Since conspiracy theorists have built up such a robust structure of false beliefs in their minds, dismantling that will not happen immediately. To effectively fight the virus, the president will have to make a prolonged effort to break down the lies that have been built up in his supporters’ minds by his rhetoric and right-wing media sources.

Since that his highly unlikely, maybe the real solution to the virus, the real cure for the larger disease that is irrational and illogical thinking, is to elect leaders that are pro-science and pro-reason. Had we collectively cherished such attributes, the coronavirus death toll may have been be a small fraction of what it is today.