Preparing the mainstream media for the next pandemic – when does mainstream media content foster belief in conspiracy theories?


Silke Adam, Chiara Valli, Mykola Makhortykh, Beatrice Eugster, Ernesto De Leon, Franziska Barbara Keller


Conspiracy theories ascribe the causes of social and political events to secret plots by malevolent actors and gain momentum in times of crisis – and the outbreak of the Covid- 19 is no exception to this phenomenon. Despite conspiracy beliefs being widespread, research indicates that only few people are directly exposed to sites pushing conspiracy theories. It is thus important to consider the possibility that mainstream media may play an unexpected role in strengthening conspiracies. In this research project, we ask whether and for whom the consumption of conspiracy-related mainstream media content triggers the development of conspiracy beliefs. To answer this question, we rely on a secondary analysis of unique panel and tracking data. To further explore the impact of media reporting types on conspiracy beliefs, we conduct an online survey experiment for which we develop stimuli based on real-world media reporting. We ask how different uncertainty-inducing cues in conspiracy-related mainstream media content trigger individuals’ need for information and their likelihood to endorse conspiracies. By sharing our findings with practitioners, we aim to raise awareness of how they can best curb the spread of conspirational ideas. Such knowledge is crucial, as research clearly shows that people who believe in conspiracy theories are hesitant to follow official state recommendations for fighting the pandemic. As mainstream media is still the most widely used source of information for a large audience, understanding their role in strengthening conspiracy beliefs can thus be decisive in combatting future pandemics.


2022 – 2024


Conspiracy; mainstream media; Covid-19; uncertainty; motivated reasoning