“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, said. Unfortunately, not everyone believes in this statement. In a time of fear and uncertainty, it’s easier for people to succumb to conspiracy theories to feel that somehow, they are in control. A recent survey conducted by researchers from the School of Journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada revealed that 46% of the respondents believe in at least one in four key myths circulating online.
The findings showed that 26% of Canadians believed that coronavirus was engineered as a bioweapon in a Chinese lab and released into the general population. Another 11% thought COVID-19 is not a serious illness but was being spread to cover up alleged harmful health effects associated with exposure to 5G wireless technology. About 23% also believed unproven claims promoted by US President Donald Trump that medications such as hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that has been linked to heart complications, are effective in treating the disease.
"This high rate is alarming because conspiracy theories risk overwhelming an already overwhelmed health system," co-author and Carleton professor Sarah Everts said.
According to The Jakarta Post, a daily English language newspaper in Indonesia, experts fear that people who believe in these conspiracy theories won't take the COVID-19 threat seriously. They may even ignore public health measures to control the rapid spread of the virus, including social distancing and self-quarantine.
The Rise of Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories
Recently, a conspiracy theory video titled “Plandemic” went viral, featuring Dr. Judy Mikovits. Mikovits is a former research scientist and inveterate conspiracy theorist who blames the coronavirus outbreak on big pharma, Bill Gates, and the World Health Organization. Several of her claims can become a dangerous tool to lure away people from scientific facts, including her claim that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus.”
Mikovits also claims that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases buried her research showing vaccines weaken people’s immune systems and made them more vulnerable to COVID-19. While the video was already taken down by several social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo, it keeps reappearing. The continuous spread of these theories is extremely dangerous right now because they offer false hope that can put people at risk.
This isn’t the first time that conspiracy theories were proliferated in times of crisis. Similar occurrences have been observed alongside past pandemics. For instance, Jews were blamed during the Bubonic Plague in the 1500s; people during the 1918 Spanish flu feared it was being deliberately spread by Germans, and the 2003 SARS outbreak was thought to have been made in a laboratory as a biological weapon.
Dr. Emily Vraga, an Associate Professor of Health Communication at the University of Minnesota, said that it’s easy to see why people are turning to unproven theories about the coronavirus. “Conspiracy theories fill in blanks that science can’t right now that science doesn’t have satisfying answers for. People are frightened and alone. Misinformation gives them the illusion of control,” she said.
According to Psychology Today, an online site about the latest from the world of psychology: from behavioral research to practical guidance on relationships, mental health, and addiction, previous studies revealed that conspiracy theories satisfy unmet psychological needs and provide security of knowledge in a time of uncertainty. While these can be debunked easily by scientific facts, people choose to believe them because they provide answers to complex questions and help relieve anxiety and powerlessness. Daniel Jolley, a psychologist and conspiracy theory researcher, explained that some people do not find the information provided by the government trustworthy. They usually prefer to focus on explanations provided by the underdog.
“Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. They often provide a simple answer to a complex problem, and blame a group of conspirators for a problem in society, which can make them very appealing,” Jolley said.
Traits of Conspiratorial Thinking
Since the pandemic has become more politicized, experts fear that people are going to start seeing the information through a political lens rather than objectively. As such, it will become a lot easier for them to believe in conspiracy theories.
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, a group of scholars exposed the rhetorical techniques used in “Plandemic.” The distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking could help people spot the red flags of a baseless conspiracy theory.
Many conspiracy theorists are extremely suspicious about the information provided to them by official and reliable sources. They tend to believe that those facts are faked or fabricated, thus, being convinced that any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research and information about the virus must be in on the conspiracy. They also believe that these organizations have evil motives.
In Plandemic, it suggests that scientists like Fauci engineered the COVID-19 pandemic, a plot which involves killing hundreds of thousands of people so far for potentially billions of dollars of profit.
Conspiracy theorists also tend to connect random patterns everywhere as if they are all interconnected. The video, for instance, suggests that the US National Institutes of Health funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China to spread the virus. The truth is, the lab is just one of many international collaborators on a project that sought to examine the risk of future viruses emerging from wildlife.
Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom who researches conspiracy theories, explained that people look for knowledge during a crisis, especially when information keeps unfolding rapidly.
“People are naturally confused. Conspiracy theories may, therefore, satisfy the need for accuracy and knowledge. They may also help people come to terms with existential threats as they can help them understand the threatening situation they are in. In addition, this might fulfill the social need to maintain a positive image of the self,” Douglas said.
Fortunately, many news media and fact-checking organizations have been working to dispel both misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. The Reuters Institute study revealed that fact-checkers quickly moved to debunk false information about the pandemic. Between January and March, the number of English-language fact-checks increased by more than 900%.
“The growing willingness of some news media to call out falsehoods and lies from prominent politicians can perhaps help counter this (though it risks alienating their strongest supporters),” the authors wrote.