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International Survey on the Influence of Public Health Communication Strategies in the Context of a Pandemic

COVID-19: Canadians place high trust in authorities compared to seven other countries

Sherbrooke, le 14 septembre 2020 – Although people who are opposed to wearing masks and who support conspiracy theories are highly visible in the public space, an international survey led by the Université de Sherbrooke shows that Canadians have fairly high trust in the country’s authorities who are managing the current pandemic. Their trust is higher than that found in the United States and also generally than the level found in England, Switzerland, Hong Kong, the Philippines, New Zealand and Belgium.

“According to our data, 89.2% of Canadians trust public health experts, i.e., physicians and scientists as well as national and international organizations,” said Professor Marie-Eve Carignan, one of the researchers who launched this study and a specialist in crisis communication. “This is a reassuring finding, as these experts are the ones who are best informed about the coronavirus and about what we need to do to fight it. By comparison, 78.7% of Belgians, 76.9% of Americans and 68.2% of Hong Kongers trust public health experts.”

The Canadian government has the confidence of the people

The survey results show that 78.3% of Canadians have confidence in their government to manage the pandemic, a rate that is second only to that of New Zealanders (83%). In comparison, only 49.3% of Americans and 48.4% of Belgians trust their governments. The researchers will conduct another international survey in the coming weeks to determine whether this level of trust has fluctuated over the summer as a potential second wave approaches.

Respondents to the survey were also asked about their trust in politicians. Lower percentages were found in this case, with 59.9% of Canadians indicating that they trust their elected officials. This government-politician trust gap is comparable to all other countries surveyed.

This survey was conducted in early June among 8,800 people, including 1,500 Canadians, and is part of a major research project on the psychological and behavioural response to the pandemic and on the influence of communication strategies and media discourse that is being led by a team from the Université de Sherbrooke.

Fewer Canadians believe in conspiracy theories

Respondents were also asked to indicate how much they agreed with five statements that commonly circulate about COVID-19:

  • The government is hiding information about the coronavirus.
  • The virus was created intentionally in a lab.
  • The virus was created accidentally in a lab.
  • The pharmaceutical industry is involved in spreading the virus.
  • The virus is linked to 5G technology.

The research team combined people’s agreement with these different statements into a conspiracy theory belief index and found that fewer Canadians believed in the conspiracy statements presented compared to people in most other countries. In fact, only 17.7% of Canadian respondents agreed to statements on the conspiracy theory belief index, making Canada the second country (after Belgium) that is most skeptical of these theories. The countries with the most respondents that endorsed beliefs on the conspiracy index were the Philippines (47.7%), England (35.9%) and the United States (34.7%).

“Although we are concerned about how quickly people started believing conspiracy ideas about COVID-19 and their spread in Canada and Quebec, our new data shows that the situation is more troubling in other parts of the world. Our next analyses will let us validate these results and see whether this trend continues given the emergence of the anti-mask and libertarian movements that have been covered heavily in the media in recent months,” said Professor Carignan, who is also Head of the Media Division for the UNESCO Chair in the Prevention of Radicalization and Violent Extremism, which addresses these issues as well. “As our preliminary studies showed that belief in conspiracy theories was particularly prevalent among the youngest respondents, we are carrying out a new project with the Chair to better understand the extent of this phenomenon among young Canadians.”

Another relevant finding is that respondents who feel most insecure about the coronavirus are also the ones who believe the most in conspiracy theories. The study also found that the higher a person’s level of agreement with the conspiracy statements, the lower their likelihood of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Our data on respondents’ likelihood of getting a future COVID-19 vaccine that is proven and FDA-approved shows a significant relationship between belief in conspiracy statements and a refusal to get the vaccine. Unsurprisingly, the data confirm these respondents’ mistrust in public authorities and the health measures in place,” said the communications specialist from the Université de Sherbrooke.

Overall, 71.4% of Canadian respondents would be willing to get a vaccine (12.5% would be opposed and 16.1% were unsure or chose not to respond). These rates put the Canadian population just behind England (73.1%) in terms of the likelihood to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

No room for fake news

Just like with conspiracy theories, fake news also has few believers in Canada. After combining the responses to create a fake news index, the researchers found that only 11.5% of Canadian respondents agreed to one of the examples on the index.

“In general, Canadians correctly identified the incorrect statements we presented,” said Professor Marie-Eve Carignan. “However, a significant number believe that the virus mainly infects people over the age of 55. This is concerning, as these respondents may be less likely to protect themselves since they don’t think they are part of the at-risk population.”

Below are the examples of fake news presented in the survey:

  • The virus does not spread in hot countries.
  • The virus only infects people over the age of 55.
  • The virus is no more dangerous than the seasonal flu.
  • Temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius prevent the virus.
  • The virus is spread by mosquito bites.
  • Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over the body kills the virus.

The countries whose respondents scored highest on the fake news index include the Philippines (37.6%), the United States (26.8%) and England (25.9%).

About the research project

A multidisciplinary team from the Université de Sherbrooke is conducting an international comparative analysis of the influence of communication strategies and media discourse on the psychological and behavioural response of populations to COVID-19. The team members include Prof. Gabriel Blouin-Genest (politics), Prof. Marie-Eve Carignan (communications), Prof. Olivier Champagne-Poirier (communications), Prof. Marc D. David (communications), Prof. Mélissa Généreux (public health), and Prof. Mathieu Roy (public health), in addition to international researchers in seven other countries. The team is supported by Professor Jean-Herman Guay (politics) and by the UNESCO Chair in the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Extremism, in particular by its co-holder, Professor David Morin (politics).

The project’s main goal is to analyze people’s perceptions and interpretations of public health messages (from the World Health Organization and governments) and other sources of information (from the media and other sources) as well as the psychosocial impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on individuals.

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Geneviève Lussier, Media Relations Advisor
Communications Department
Université de Sherbrooke | 819-212-3813 |