The Great Divide
U of I Senior Seeks to Identify Reasons for Issue Polarization
Information surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine may be the most hotly contested and polarizing topic in modern times. Kendall Mitton sought feedback from people across the United States to understand the reasons why.
The double major in political science and philosophy created a survey to measure the effects misinformation and anxiety had on people’s beliefs about the vaccine.
“There’s a lot of older research that shows how emotions play a big role in our actions and beliefs,” the senior said. “But there’s also newer research about how misinformation, especially in the U.S., has created doubts about fact-checking. I wanted to fill the gap between those two ideas.”
Through a SURF grant within U of I’s Office of Undergraduate Research, Mitton worked with Florian Justwan, associate professor of political science and Bert Baumgaertner, associate professor of philosophy, to create and distribute a nationwide survey to better understand people’s beliefs surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine. Her survey questions included four different variables aimed at determining if anxiety and misinformation played a role in shifting people’s beliefs.
“This project exemplifies the benefits of research collaboration between undergraduates and faculty in the Department of Politics and Philosophy,” Baumgaertner said. “But the most important part, as with any kind of research, is the new set of questions this project has us asking ourselves that keeps driving new research.”
Just the Facts
Mitton’s survey randomly assigned respondents two of four stories she organized for the study. Two stories gauged anxiety — one was about suspicious behavior of an AI chat bot and the other was a random article about crocodiles. The other two stories zeroed in on fact-checking — one presented the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccine, while the other contradicted the first by explaining that fact-checking showed the claims of danger were a false narrative.
After reading their two stories, respondents then answered questions about COVID-19, such as:
- In your opinion, how accurate is the following claim?: “COVID-19 is just as harmful to unvaccinated people as it is to vaccinated people.”
- How much do you agree with the following statement?: “The COVID-19 vaccine is effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.”
- Suppose someone asks you to sign a petition that supports increasing funding to provide vaccines meant to treat COVID-19. How likely would you be to sign the petition?
Anxiety Over Fact-Checking
Mitton began her project hypothesizing that an increase in an individual’s anxiety level would lead to a decrease in the effectiveness of misinformation fact-checks. In other words, if someone was worried about a specific subject, Mitton thought they would tend to disbelieve fact-checking about that subject because anxiety had already swayed their decision.
Based on the 607 responses returned, the most significant result she received was that an increase in a respondent’s anxiety level correlated to a decrease in that person’s perception about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. The presence of misinformation did not have a significant effect on a respondent’s perception about the vaccine.
Other trends Mitton noted from her survey results include:
- A respondent whose highest education level was a high school diploma, or who identified as a Republican, had higher levels of negative views about the vaccine.
- Respondents who identified as white had significantly more favorable perceptions about the vaccine.
Mitton thinks a large reason for the discrepancy between anxiety-driven responses and fact-checking driven responses is due to the tremendous amount of fact-checking done by the government during the pandemic and that after three years of talking about COVID-19, many people had entrenched opinions.
There’s a lot of older research that shows how emotions play a big role in our actions and beliefs. But there’s also newer research about how misinformation, especially in the U.S., has created doubts about fact-checking. I wanted to fill the gap between those two ideas.
— Kendall Mitton, senior
Despite not getting the definitive answers she hoped for, Mitton said her research project could be a launching point for future researchers to continue in her footsteps.
“While my research may not have turned out exactly as I had expected, it is still important to the overall progression of research in political science,” she said. “My topic helps explain the severe political polarization in the United States and could be helpful for finding new techniques to combat belief in misinformation.”