Threat to Democracy? Conspiracy Theories in the Context of Covid-19 (DemThreat)


Dr. Ina Bieber


Pandemics can not only weaken the health of many people and lead

to high mortality rates, they can also have a decisive influence on the

destabilization and collapse of democracies. According to the findings

of various researchers, the Spanish flu in the early 1920s, for example,

led to the National Socialists coming to power in Germany, and it has

generally been shown that sudden negative shocks and extreme events can

have serious negative consequences for democracy.

While previous pandemics primarily threatened democracies with

adverse economic effects in the aftermath of the crisis, COVID-19 gives

cause for concern about the stability of political systems already in

its early stages. Almost as fast as the spread of the actual virus,

conspiracy theories started to spread within (on- and offline) networks

ranging from the denial of the existence of the pandemic to claiming

that the virus was engineered in Chinese laboratories. These beliefs

seem to be so contagious that they flourish in the ever-growing protests

on the streets where conspiracy theorists are accompanied by

anti-vaccination activists and right-wing populists, as well by an

increasing amount of people from the middle of society. Despite all

their differences, these groups have one thing in common: a

dissatisfaction with the current restriction measures related to

COVID-19 and the associated criticism of the leadership elite's

assumption of power. With this in mind, it is currently not clear

whether the conspiracy theories are causing the elitist skepticism or

whether they rather act as a catalyst for already existing elitist

skepticism and thus add fuel to the fire.

We investigate how the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19

threaten democracy. Our experimental panel design uses a baseline

measurement from before the massive spread of COVID-19 and illustrates

whether and to what extent certain population groups can be infected by

conspiracy theories and thus alter their voting behavior by not voting

or voting extremely. As conspiracy theories are currently on the rise,

this project is an important contribution to assess the underlying

mechanisms and the resulting threats to democracy.


2021-01-01 – 2023-01-31



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