A “call for module proposals” was issued on the ESS website on 22 May 2020, with a deadline of 16 June for submission of proposals. Given the quick turnaround, requirements for proposals were greatly simplified compared with the much more extensive process involved in the development of ESS rotating modules.
Proposals could be a maximum of two pages and needed to cover relevance and originality, methodology, and impact. The proposed set of five questions needed to be provided. The call was open to individual researchers and teams of researchers.
The call document also stated that applicants should consider that ESS data collection would likely take place some time after the initial phase of the pandemic, and that fieldwork dates would vary between countries.
In total, 24 eligible proposals were received and assessed following a two-stage process. The selected sub-modules were:
Government authority and legitimacy in the age of a pandemic (Helbling et al., 2020).
COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and government rule compliance (Gemenis et al., 2020)
The selected sub-modules were both judged to link well with other areas covered by ESS, extending analysis possibilities for data users. For example, the Helbling et al. proposal linked to the rotating Round 10 module on “Understandings and Evaluations of Democracy”, while the Gemenis et al. proposal can be related to ESS questions on political efficacy, attitudes towards democracy, technocratic governance, populism, and authoritarianism. Both proposals covered debates that relate to the COVID-19 pandemic but which would also have relevance beyond it. The proposed items were also felt not to be overly burdensome for respondents to answer and fitted with the wider ESS questionnaire in terms of content and format.
The two sub-modules are summarised below.
Government authority and legitimacy in the age of a pandemic
The aim of this sub-module is to provide information about how European publics react to pandemic policies. During the pandemic, governments used measures such as stay-at-home orders, business closures, curfews, digital monitoring, and restrictions on movement and assembly. Many of these measures were controversial and some people actively resisted what they believed were unnecessary examples of government overreach. The success of future measures to prevent or contain a pandemic will depend on public support. Therefore, a first very general item asks respondents to what extent they trust their national government to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic (K15).
Many of the most aggressive government policies inflicted considerable economic pain in the interest of protecting public health and thereby increased social and economic inequalities. Relatedly, governments claimed they need extensive (and often unprecedented) power to monitor, surveil, and track the public, in order to enforce compliance with public health measures and to conduct contact tracing for people who test positive for COVID-19. However, liberal democratic societies across Europe also value individual liberty, which may have been threatened by these measures. To study attitudes towards these controversies, several items ask to what extent people prioritise health vs. the economy and government power vs. privacy (K4a, K5a, K4b, K5b). To see to what extent these trade-offs are affected by the pandemic, we included a randomised experimental element where half of the sample was asked to indicate their priorities when fighting a pandemic whereas the other half was asked the same questions without a reference to a pandemic.
Another controversial issue during the COVID-19 pandemic concerned mobility. The pandemic halted travel and migration in an unprecedented way (Piccoli et al., 2021). Asking for views about mobility in light of the pandemic will bring new insight to questions that have motivated scholars for years (De Haas et al., 2020). The sub-module covers both international (K7) and domestic mobility (K8) because fears of COVID-19 spreading from dense cities to suburbs and the countryside brought into play questions about equity between nations, regions and communities. The proposed items ask how important it is to close borders and to restrict people’s movement between different parts of their country when fighting a pandemic (Koopmans, 2020).
Understanding these different opinion dynamics will be essential for governments and other agencies in their struggle to get broad compliance for public health measures. The sub-module will also contribute to our understanding of the future of European democracies, especially when linked to other ESS questions, such as the module on Understandings and Evaluations of Democracy. This will allow researchers to connect attitudes towards pandemic measures to broader political and societal issues such as the questions of what powers democratic governments should have and to what extent citizens are willing to tradeoff democratic freedoms for other perceived benefits like health or stability. Further links can be drawn to other topics in the ESS such as the politics of economic and social inequality in Europe, who is viewed as more deserving of government support, and what the priorities should be for contemporary societies. This sub-module intersects with many of those debates by asking about the priorities when fighting a pandemic and the extent to which different societal groups should be privileged (or not).
COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and government rule compliance
This sub-module focused on conspiratorial thinking. Conspiracy beliefs can be a major hindrance causing a lack of compliance with public health measures and, more generally, a government’s ability to enforce rules designed to protect the public. The state of the art in conspiracy attitudes lacks the follow through from causes to consequences, especially with a nuanced view of different conspiracies. Understanding the contextual causes of cross-national differences, and the potential consequences, regarding compliance with COVID-19 rules is something we need to help save lives in such a crisis situation. Potential individual causes are tapped well elsewhere in the European Social Survey with questions on institutional trust, trust in government, political efficacy, attitudes towards democracy, life satisfaction, populist attitudes, and one’s approval of technocratic governance (ESS Round 10 questionnaire). To expand on this, we also included trust in scientists (B12a). These potential causes, along with country-contextual characteristics such as economic and political factors or natural experiments emerging from cross-country variations, or more specifically, the impact of the outbreak on people’s lives, will help understand why and how conspiracy theories become more or less prevalent.
Taking inspiration from the Brotherton et al. (2013) conspiracy battery, we measure three dimensions of conspiratorial thinking: general conspiracies, more domain specific-scientific coverup, and finally a COVID-specific item:
“A small secret group of people is responsible for making all major decisions in world politics.” (K1)
“Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public.” (K2)
“Coronavirus is the result of deliberate and concealed efforts of some government or organisation.” (K16)
We experimentally explored different response options in two online pilot studies in Austria and the UK comparing a 5-point Likert type response format to a dichotomous measure giving an explicit choice between a conspiratorial and a conventional explanation for an event (cf. Clifford et al., 2019). Aggregation of the two agree and two disagree responses resulted in a similar distribution to the two options of the dichotomous format, while rate of “don’t know” responses corresponded closely to the middle category of the 5-point scale. The Likert scale was deemed preferable given the much lower rate of non-response and greater, potentially meaningful variance making it also usable as a continuous item.
In relation to conspiratorial thinking, relevant outcomes included in the sub-module are policy preferences on health vs economy, border closures, movement restrictions and people’s allowance for government tracking activities in such a crisis situation, and the aforementioned compliance with government rules. To measure the latter, we considered a diverse set of items including attitudes towards social distancing. Given the item “Is it more important for you personally to follow government rules or to make your own decisions when fighting a pandemic?” (K6) was already proposed by Helbling et al. (2020), we settled on only one additional rule-compliance item “Will you get vaccinated against coronavirus with the vaccine that was approved by the national regulatory authority in [country]?” (K20).