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Rise Of Conspiracy Theories With COVID-19: A Psychological Perspective

Sarita Sapkota: Lecturer of Psychology at Trichandra Multiple Campus and Goldengate International College

– Sarita Sapkota
Conspiracy theories can be described as ‘‘a subset of false beliefs in which the ultimate cause of an event is believed to be due to a plot by multiple actors working together with a clear goal in mind, often unlawfully and in secret’’ (Swami & Furnham, 2014). Conspiracy theories, in general, are attempts to explain the causes of significant events by claiming they are due to secret plots by powerful actors (Douglas, Sutton, & Cichocka, 2017). Conspiracy beliefs refer to beliefs in a specific conspiracy theory or set of theories. The belief in conspiracy theories is remarkably widespread. There’s a core feeling that authority and experts aren’t to be trusted, which then paves the way towards embracing more outlandish ideas. Conspiracy theories are most likely to arise during times of uncertainty about important events, especially if the events are threatening and personally relevant (Wood, 2018). COVID-19, a Pandemic, marked by uncertainties about its origin, treatment, vaccination, etc., has led to a rise of many conspiracy theories.

The most trending conspiracy theory has been “SARS-CoV-2 is a man-made bioweapon that either escaped a Wuhan research lab or was released deliberately”. In February, the New York Post published an op-ed claiming SARS-CoV-2 had possibly escaped from the lab. In research done by Pew Research Center, about a third of Americans surveyed believe that Covid-19 was not only man-made but that it was developed intentionally. Soon thereafter, President Trump echoed those suspicions in press briefing comments with a subsequent announcement of a “full-scale investigation” to find out the truth. 

On March 23, the U.S. conspiracy theorist George Webb published a video on YouTube, labeling Maatje Benassi, a 52-year-old cyclist who races for the U.S. Military Endurance Sports Team, as the “patient zero” who transmitted the COVID-19 bioweapon from Fort Detrick (United States Army Medical Command installation located in Frederick, Maryland) to China when she competed at the Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019. 

“5G wireless technology has played a role in the spread of coronavirus”. Since the outbreak, the 5G conversation seems to have found itself linked to the disease with people claiming it could exacerbate the spread through its frequencies, or by suppressing the immune system. Even US actor Woody Harrelson shared a post on Instagram that linked 5G to the pandemic, and TV personality Jason Gardiner suggested the World Health Organization had warned against the mobile network due to the illness. 

Bill Gates is the center of the coronavirus crisis”. Bill Gates has advocated for pandemic preparedness for years and famously gave a TED talk in 2015 that warned of the potentially staggering death toll a worldwide pandemic could create and as the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the world, Gates has pledged $250 million to fight the disease and create a vaccine. These two factors provided the foundation of a new set of conspiracy theories that point to Gates as the origin of coronavirus. 

Bill Gates is using COVID-19 to install human trackers”. Believers of this think that when we eventually have a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, Gates will use the opportunity to inject microchips into everyone’s bodies. In Fannin’s video, which has garnered 1.8 million views, he lambastes Gates for supporting vaccination and suggests that he is working on implantable devices with “digital certificates” and “quantum dot tattoos” that would identify people with COVID-19 and send their information to the United Nations. 

The fragmented nature of social media chops conspiracies into little pieces—a factoid here, a false claim there—creating a kind of information petri dish for conspiracy cross-propagation, allowing half-true facts, decontextualized narratives, and false beliefs to flow and fold into one another and spread rapidly across the world (Elise. T., 2020)

There are plenty of people who don’t believe the coronavirus pandemic is real. A predisposition toward conspiracy thinking leads to the rejection of medical and scientific findings. People who reject such findings related to COVID-19, might not wash their hands, wear masks, or practice social distancing, which can lead to higher susceptibility to being infected and spreading it unknowingly.

Causes for rising of and belief in Conspiracy theory, based on various previous research:

Evidence suggests that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is driven by motives that can be characterized as epistemic, existential, and social.
epistemic (needing to understand one’s environment; epistemic motives help in slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation. conspiracy belief is stronger when people experience distress as a result of feeling uncertainty),
existential (needing to feel safe and in control of one’s environment; conspiracy theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognized and the threat they posed is reduced or neutralized), and
social (needing to maintain a positive image of oneself and one’s in-group; Causal explanations including conspiracy explanations are also informed by various social motivations, including the desire to belong and to maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group. Scholars have suggested that conspiracy theories valorize the self and the in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be attributed to others.)
Teleological bias is associated with conspiracism -the proneness to explain socio-historical events in terms of secret and malevolent conspiracies. Everything happens for a reason’ or ‘it was meant to be’ intuition at the heart of teleological thinking could be a more general gateway to the acceptance of anti-scientiļ¬c views and conspiracy theories.
A tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is associated with the feeling of possessing scarce information about the situations explained by the conspiracy theories and higher need for uniqueness. People in a high need for unique conditions display higher conspiracy beliefs than people in a low need for unique conditions. Conspiracy theories may serve people’s desire to be unique, highlighting a motivational underpinning of conspiracy beliefs.
Conspiracy theories offer simple answers to complex problems by providing explanations for uncertain situations. Thus, they should be attractive to individuals who are intolerant of uncertainty and seek cognitive closure. People high (vs. low) in Need for Cognitive Closure (NFCC) seize on conspiratorial explanations for uncertain events when such explanations are situationally accessible.
A tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is correlated with: Suspiciousness, magical thinking. and the tendency to believe in the paranormal, Narcissism (i.e., an inflated view of oneself that requires external validation), worry about one’s health and mortality, gullibility, lower media literacy (i.e., poorer ability to critically analyze the source and contents of news stories), lower intelligence, lower education, and poorer skills in analytical thinking, rejection of conventional scientific findings or theories (e.g., the theory of evolution) in favor of pseudoscience (e.g., the belief that prayer is effective in curing terminal disease).
Overcoming Conspiracy Theory Beliefs:

Once the belief in a conspiracy theory is firmly established, it can be difficult to correct. In some cases, it may be very difficult, if not impossible to persuade people to abandon their conspiratorial beliefs, however, research suggests that people can be inoculated against conspiracy theories by:

Being exposed to arguments that refute conspiracy theories
Conspiracy thinking is associated with feelings of reduced control and perceived threat. When people feel like they have lost control of a situation, their conspiracy tendencies increase but when people feel empowered, they are more resilient to conspiracy theories. Researchers found that promotion-focused people i.e. those who believe that they have the power and control to shape their future were more skeptical and less likely to buy into conspiracies.
Analytical thinking also can reduce the belief in conspiracies. Analytical thinking prompts careful and deliberate processing of information which increases attention to logical fallacies and factual inaccuracies inherent in most conspiracy theories.