Governments worldwide have introduced lockdowns, stay at home orders, social distancing restrictions, mandated mask wearing, and, more recently, encouraged widespread vaccination to curb the spread of COVID-19 and promote public health.

Simultaneously, conspiracy theories related to how the pandemic started and why governments have introduced COVID-19 restrictions have flourished, facilitated by online media platforms. Widespread belief in conspiracies poses significant challenges for authorities and their ability to manage the pandemic.

Conspiracy theories are explanations of events that are: (a) skeptical of official accounts, and (b) described as malicious acts by self-interested and powerful groups. Conspiracy theories vary widely in range and gravity.

Research finds that individuals who endorse one conspiracy theory tend to support others, even if they are contradictory. For example, some people simultaneously endorse beliefs that COVID-19 is not real and that COVID-19 was a biological weapon released by China
Believing conspiracy theories can reduce feelings of anxiety or uncertainty during crises. However, these beliefs can also disrupt the normal functioning of society—for example, people who believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories are less inclined to support government directives or engage in protective health behaviors.

The Link Between Conspiracy Theories And Vaccine Hesitancy

Not surprisingly, then, vaccine mandates have become a target for conspiracy theorists, some of whom believe the vaccines are harmful or are being used for nefarious purposes (like population control or to track individuals' movements).

Conspiracy beliefs might influence vaccine hesitancy in a number of ways. We focused on low trust in authorities, the health threat posed by COVID-19, and breakdown in societal values and social trust (i.e., anomie). Our study explored how well these three factors explained the link between conspiracy beliefs and vaccine hesitancy. Using survey data from 779 people living in Australia, we found that those who believed in any of three conspiracy theories were more vaccine hesitant.  Reasons why participants were hesitant to vaccinate varied depending on their belief in each conspiracy theory.

  • The belief that COVID-19 was intentionally released as a biological weapon or that the government was using COVID-19 to limit personal freedoms increased vaccine hesitancy, in part because these conspiracy theory beliefs were associated with reduced social trust.
  • The belief that the government was using COVID-19 to limit personal freedoms increased vaccine hesitancy by reducing the perceived health threat posed by COVID-19.
  • The belief that vaccines would be used to harm or control society increased vaccine hesitancy by reducing the perceived health threat posed by COVID-19.  
  • Higher trust in government was associated with stronger beliefs in the health threat posed by COVID-19 and reduced perceptions that societal values and social trust were deteriorating, both of which predicted vaccine hesitancy. 

Where To From Here?

The effect of conspiracy theories on vaccine hesitancy challenges the effectiveness of responses to address COVID-19, and other life-threatening viruses in the future. Public health communication strategies should focus on building public trust in government. Governments, particularly those in more democratic nations, can enhance public perceptions by taking actions and decisions perceived as fair, transparent, effective, and commensurate with risk.   

Because crises can fuel conspiracies, developing tools to prevent "infodemics" from spreading during similar events is important. Some potential tools include providing early warnings about misinformation, encouraging healthy skepticism, and using social media to disseminate balanced information about vaccines, particularly by trusted health professionals.

As the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues globally, improving our understanding of how to counter conspiracy theories and encourage vaccine uptake is critical to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on mortality and morbidity worldwide. This likely isn't our last pandemic, so the lessons learned here could be applied to quell future infodemics.

For Further Reading

McCarthy, M., Murphy, K., Sargeant, E., & Williamson, H. (2021). Examining the relationship between conspiracy theories and COVID‐19 vaccine hesitancy: A mediating role for perceived health threats, trust, and anomie? Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 1-24.


Harley Williamson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Griffith Criminology Institute at Griffith University. Harley's research focuses on policing, countering violent extremism, and understanding the impacts of perceived threat.

Molly McCarthy is a lecturer in criminology in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests including examining the influence of COVID-19 on trust and cooperation, the impacts of structural factors on offending and policing responses, police use of force, and chronic youth offending.

Kristina Murphy is a professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University. She is best known for her research on procedural justice and trust in authorities. Her recent research centres on the importance of procedural justice in countering violent extremism, and the link between conspiracy theory beliefs, trust in authority, and extremism.

Elise Sargeant is a senior lecturer and researcher at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the Griffith Criminology Institute, Griffith University. Elise's research explores public attitudes to police with a particular focus on procedural justice, police legitimacy, cooperation, and compliance.