IZA Discussion Paper No. 14229

More than Words: Leaders’ Speech and Risky Behavior During a Pandemic

This paper investigates if the anti-scientific rhetoric of modern populists can induce followers to engage in risky behavior. We gather electoral information, in-person card transactions, and geo-localized mobile phone data for approximately 60 million devices in Brazil. After the president publicly dismissed the risks of the COVID-19 pandemic and challenged scientific community recommendations, social distancing in pro-government localities declined. Consistently, general in-person transactions increased immediately, while expenses in pharmacies and cases grew with a six-day lag. Results are driven by localities with higher media penetration levels, active Twitter accounts, and a larger proportion of Evangelical Christians, a critical electoral group.

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