Almost half of the British population believes that coronavirus is a “man-made creation”, according to polling that reveals the extent of conspiracy theories.
Research seen exclusively by The Independent ahead of its release suggested that 8 per cent of people think that 5G technology is spreading the virus, and that many more have seen claims that Covid-19 is a Chinese weapon or created by the “New World Order”.
Brexit supporters and people who distrust the political system are more likely to believe the conspiracies, according to the report.
Hope Not Hate, which commissioned the polling, warned that even through everyone who comes across the ideas will not believe them, “the large amount of attention they are getting is worrying and sometimes even dangerous”. Author Patrik Hermansson told The Independent that conspiracy theories of all kinds “need to be fought”.
“You start with something that does not seem very dangerous, but it’s very easy to travel from there to directly hateful ideas against minorities,” he said. “Social media companies need to start looking at conspiracy theories as they do with other extremism and clamp down harder.”
Almost one in five people indicated belief in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, with 18 per cent agreeing that inoculations have hidden harmful effects.
When asked which of two statements they agreed with more, 55 per cent of respondents said coronavirus was a “natural phenomenon” and 45 per cent said it was “a man-made creation”.
Mr Hermansson, a researcher with Hope Not Hate, said some respondents may have considered wet markets, the political reaction to the outbreak, air travel and other factors in their response.
“But there are a lot of conspiracy theories around coronavirus,” he added. “In the early days theories around it being a Chinese biological weapon were popular, but were then overtaken by 5G.
“Every week it mutates and now it’s heading very much in the direction of the UN and New World Order kind of stuff. At the moment we’re also seeing 5G merging with anti-vaccination ideas and the Agenda 21 theory that the world is being deliberately depopulated.”
According to the polling, 8 per cent of the British population agree that 5G technology is “contributing to the spread of coronavirus” – a baseless claim that has already caused widespread vandalism of masts and attacks on engineers. A further 19 per cent did not rule it out.
5G was also the theory that had been seen by the largest group of people (37 per cent), followed by claims that coronavirus was developed by China as a biological weapon (35 per cent) and that it was “intentionally released as part of a depopulation plan by the UN or New World Order (21 per cent).
The findings came after counterterror police warned that conspiracy theories were being used “as a hook” by extremists to draw in new recruits.
Officials are concerned that lockdown conditions mean that people are spending more time alone online, while experiencing fear and distress that makes them less able to spot and reject misinformation.
Chief Superintendent Nik Adams, national coordinator of the Prevent programme, told The Independent false claims linking 5G technology to the spread of coronavirus were being “monitored very closely”.
“It’s being pushed out by extreme right-wing groups as a hook to get people onto chat forums, where they can then talk about other hate-related conspiracy theories and draw people into their narratives,” he added.
“From that, they can pick up those individuals who are most vulnerable to encourage them, radicalise them and take them towards terrorism.”
Separate research said “dangerous” conspiracy theories blaming Muslims for the spread of coronavirus were gaining traction, after police were forced to debunk several fake videos being used to claim that mosques remained open.
Hope Not Hate said that “anti-Islam sentiment was high” across different questions in the poll, with 28 per cent of people believing the Muslim population is growing faster than non-Muslim and the same proportion thinking Islam seeks to replace British law with Sharia.
It also found that 13 per cent of the population believed the antisemitic trope that Jewish people have “undue control of the banking system”.
The majority of conspiracy theorists voted Leave, while most of those broadly against the theories voted Remain in the EU referendum. Mr Hermansson said the strongest believers were generally lower earners with a lower level of education, and were less likely to have voted in the most recent general election or supported a political party.
“Conspiracy theories are a symptom of a larger issue where people don’t trust politics and feel left behind,” he added. “That lack of trust can make people prone to conspiracy theories, then they add to those feelings and make them worse.”
Mr Hermansson said the nature of the coronavirus outbreak was also making the theories more attractive, amid rapidly changing medical advice and vastly different approaches around the world.
He added: “When big world-changing events happen we want them to have a meaning … we try to find an explanation for it and even intent. The idea that something like this could happen randomly is just not enough for many people.”
The report was based on three polls conducted by Focaldata between February and April 2020, which used a weighted sample of between 2,000 and 3,000 adults each from across Britain.