Prof Dr Ravi Wankhedkar Treasurer World Medical Association. President SAARC Medical Association. Past Nat President IMA.
The novel coronavirus continues to spread around the world, with new cases being reported all the time. Spreading just as fast, it seems, are conspiracy theories that claim powerful actors are plotting something sinister to do with the virus. The conspiracy theories shows that this has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself. The pandemic has given rise to many new conspiracy theories. Certain groups are more prone to being targeted, including particular religions and people with different sexual orientation.Counter-actions include calling out false information, contacting the author, and taking care not to spread it further.From those that question the moon landings to theories about JFK’s assassination, you don’t have to look far to find a conspiracy theory. And while we may find some of the most out-there theories laughable, the problem is, they’re not always easy to recognize.The internet is the perfect breeding ground for them, and the uncertainty created by the coronavirus outbreak is allowing them to flourish.
How conspiracy theories flourish?
Conspiracy theories often start as a suspicion based on someone benefiting from an event or situation. ‘Evidence’ is then forced to fit around the theory. It can be hard to refute them because the person doing so is often seen as part of the conspiracy.The theories can spread rapidly, particularly over social media, where people are easily taken in by them. Others spread them because they want to deliberately provoke or manipulate. Conspiracy theories can often target or discriminate against an entire group which are perceived to benefit. Some groups are particularly prone to being targeted, including people of particular religions or sexual orientation. For example, various conspiracies have falsely accused groups including people of assumed Asian origin, Jews and Muslims as spreading COVID-19 in Europe.As a result, conspiracies can polarize societies, worsen existing tensions and fuel violent extremism.
How to stop them spreading?
Key to stopping the spread of conspiracy theories is educating people to be on the lookout for misleading information – and teaching them to be suspicious of certain sources. But there is no hard and fast rule as to how best to identify or react to potentially damaging and misleading information. It can be particularly difficult when the theories are being sent from friends and family.
The link to COVID-19
Uncertainty and worry create the perfect environment for conspiracies to be born. Although it is still not confirmed where or how COVID-19 originated, theories abound. They largely ignore scientific evidence and attempt to come up with reasons why the pandemic happened and who stands to benefit.
One conspiracy theory proposes that the coronavirus is actually a bio-weapon engineered by the CIA as a way to wage war on China.
Others are convinced that the UK and US governments introduced the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine.
Although many of these conspiracy theories seem far-fetched, the belief that evil powers are pursuing a secret plan is widespread in every society. Often these relate to health. A large 2019 YouGov poll found 16% of respondents in Spain believe that HIV was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organisation. And 27% of French and 12% of British respondents were convinced that “the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public”.
The spread of fake news and conspiracy theories around the coronavirus is such a significant problem that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has created a “myth busters” webpage to try and tackle them.
Spread of conspiracy theories
Research shows that conspiracy theories have a tendency to arise in relation to moments of crisis in society – like terrorist attacks, rapid political changes or economic crisis. Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. These are the same conditions produced by virus outbreaks, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories in relation to coronavirus.
Similar conditions occurred with the 2015-16 outbreak of Zika virus. Zika conspiracy theories proposed that the virus was a biological weapon rather than a natural occurrence. Research examining comments on Reddit during the Zika virus outbreak found conspiracy talk emerged as a way for people to cope with the extreme uncertainty they felt over Zika.
Trust in the recommendations from health professionals and organisations is an important resource for dealing with a health crisis. But people who believe in conspiracy theories generally do not trust groups they perceive as powerful, including managers, politicians and drug companies. If people do not trust, they are less likely to follow medical advice.
Researchers have shown that medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves. People who endorse medical conspiracy theories are less likely to get vaccinated or use antibiotics and are more likely to take herbal supplements or vitamins. Plus, they are more likely to say they would trust medical advice from nonprofessionals such as friends and family.
In light of these results, people who endorse conspiracy theories about the coronavirus may be less likely to follow health advice like frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap, or self-isolating after visiting at-risk areas.
Instead, these people may be more likely to have negative attitudes towards prevention behaviour or use dangerous alternatives as treatments. This would increase the likelihood of the virus spreading and put more people in danger.
Already, we can see “alternative healing approaches” to coronavirus cropping up – some of them very dangerous. Promoters of the popular QAnon conspiracy theory, for example, have said the coronavirus was planned by the so-called “deep state” and claimed the virus can be warded off by drinking bleach.
The spread of medical conspiracy theories can also have severe consequences for other sections of society. For example, during the Black Death in Europe, Jews were scapegoated as responsible for the pandemic. These conspiracy theories led to violent attacks and massacres of Jewish communities all over Europe. The outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a worldwide increase in racist attacks targeted towards people perceived as East Asian.
It is possible to intervene and halt the spread of conspiracy theories, however. Research shows that campaigns promoting counterarguments to medical conspiracy theories are likely to have some success in rectifying conspiracy beliefs. Games such as Bad News, in which people can take the role of a fake news producer, have been shown to improve people’s ability to spot and resist misinformation.
Conspiracy theories can be very harmful for society. Not only can they influence people’s health choices, they can interfere with how different groups relate to each other and increase hostility and violence towards those who are perceived to be “conspiring”. So as well as acting to combat the spread of the coronavirus, governments should also act to stop misinformation and conspiracy theories relating to the virus from getting out of hand.
The 7 traits of conspiratorial thinking
A new guide outlines 7 distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking.The research could help identify such theories and prevent them spreading and taking hold.This is especially important as coronavirus theories spread.The conspiracy theory video “Plandemic” recently went viral. Despite being taken down by YouTube and Facebook, it continues to get uploaded and viewed millions of times. The video is an interview with conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits, a disgraced former virology researcher who believes the COVID-19 pandemic is based on vast deception, with the purpose of profiting from selling vaccinations.The video is rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories. Many high-quality fact-checks and debunkings have been published by reputable outlets such as Science, Politifact and FactCheck.
As scholars who research how to counter science misinformation and conspiracy theories, we believe there is also value in exposing the rhetorical techniques used in “Plandemic.”There are seven distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking.
Learning these traits can help you spot the red flags of a baseless conspiracy theory and hopefully build up some resistance to being taken in by this kind of thinking. This is an important skill given the current surge of pandemic-fueled conspiracy theories.
1. Contradictory beliefs
Conspiracy theorists are so committed to disbelieving an official account, it doesn’t matter if their belief system is internally contradictory. The “Plandemic” video advances two false origin stories for the coronavirus. It argues that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab in Wuhan – but also argues that everybody already has the coronavirus from previous vaccinations, and wearing masks activates it. Believing both causes is mutually inconsistent.
2. Overriding suspicion
Conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly suspicious toward the official account. That means any scientific evidence that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory must be faked.
But if you think the scientific data is faked, that leads down the rabbit hole of believing that any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research consistent with the “official account” must be in on the conspiracy. For COVID-19, this includes the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Anthony Fauci… basically, any group or person who actually knows anything about science must be part of the conspiracy.
3. Nefarious intent
In a conspiracy theory, the conspirators are assumed to have evil motives. In the case of “Plandemic,” there’s no limit to the nefarious intent. The video suggests scientists including Anthony 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.
4. Conviction something’s wrong
Conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable. But those revisions tend not to change their overall conclusion that “something must be wrong” and that the official account is based on deception.
5. Persecuted victim
Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the victims of organized persecution. “Plandemic” further ratchets up the persecuted victimhood by characterizing the entire world population as victims of a vast deception, which is disseminated by the media and even ourselves as unwitting accomplices.
At the same time, conspiracy theorists see themselves as brave heroes taking on the villainous conspirators.
6. Immunity to evidence
It’s so hard to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind because their theories are self-sealing. Even absence of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the theory: The reason there’s no proof of the conspiracy is because the conspirators did such a good job covering it up.
7. Reinterpreting randomness
Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere – they’re all about connecting the dots. Random events are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern. Any connections are imbued with sinister meaning.
Critical thinking is the antidote
There are a variety of strategies you can use in response to conspiracy theories.
One approach is to inoculate yourself and your social networks by identifying and calling out the traits of conspiratorial thinking. Another approach is to “cognitively empower” people, by encouraging them to think analytically. The antidote to conspiratorial thinking is critical thinking, which involves healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence.
Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to inoculating yourself and others from being misled, especially when we are most vulnerable: in times of crises and uncertainty.