Daniel Roberts received a COVID vaccine over the objections of his family, who are against being vaccinated. “Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories he hears from family and friends. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Daniel Roberts received a COVID vaccine over the objections of his family, who are against being vaccinated. “Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories he hears from family and friends. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing false sense of empowerment: experts

Daniel Roberts received a COVID-19 vaccine over the objections of his family, who are against being vaccinated

Daniel Roberts hadn’t had a vaccination since he was 6. No boosters, no tetanus shots. His parents taught him inoculations were dangerous, and when the coronavirus arrived, they called it a hoax. The vaccine, they said, was the real threat.

So when the 29-year-old Tennessee man got his COVID-19 shot at his local Walmart last month, it felt like an achievement. A break with his past.

“Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories embraced by family and friends. ”I don’t know why I didn’t believe all of it myself. I guess I chose to believe the facts.”

As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines.

They’re seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and information.

And they’re concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secretive explanations, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightening.

The findings have implications not only for pandemic response but for the next “infodemic,” a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinformation.

“We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?”

About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems.

In January, anti-vaccine activists forced a vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to close for a day. In Europe, dozens of cell towers burned because of bizarre claims that 5G wireless signals were triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed vaccine doses, medical workers were attacked, and hundreds died after consuming toxins touted as cures — all because of COVID-19 falsehoods.

The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicated, tumultuous events, when the truth may be too troubling to accept, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which researches and promotes critical thinking in the internet age.

Such theories often appear after significant or frightening moments in history: the moon landing, the Sept. 11 attacks, or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when many found it difficult to accept that a lone, deranged gunman could kill the president. Vast conspiracies involving the CIA, the mob or others are easier to digest.

“People need big explanations for big problems, for big world events,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist and conspiracy theory expert at Monash University in Australia. “Random explanations — like bats, or wet markets — are just psychologically unsatisfying.”

This drive is so strong, Cook said, that people often believe contradictory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for instance, initially thought COVID-19 was linked to cell towers, before deciding the virus was actually a hoax. The only explanations they didn’t entertain, he said, were the ones coming from medical experts.

Distrust of science, institutions and traditional news sources is heavily associated with stronger beliefs in conspiracy theories, as is support for pseudoscience.

Trust in American institutions has been further eroded by false statements from leaders like President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, suggested bleach as a treatment, and undermined his administration’s own experts.

An analysis by Cornell University researchers determined Trump to be the greatest driver of false coronavirus claims. Studies also show conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories or share COVID-19 misinformation.

Carmona said he was addressing a group of executives about the coronavirus recently when one man declared that the pandemic was created by the Chinese government and Democrats to hurt Trump’s reelection bid.

“When people start believing their own facts and rejecting anything the other side says, we’re in real trouble,” he said.

A shared distrust in American institutions has helped to unite several groups behind the banner of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. They include far-right groups upset about lockdowns and mask mandates, anti-vaccine activists and adherents of QAnon, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of satanic cannibals.

Besides gaining insight into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, researchers are finding possible solutions to the broader problem of online misinformation. They include stronger efforts by social media companies and new regulations.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have long faced criticism for allowing misinformation to flourish. They haveacted more aggressively on COVID-19 misinformation, suggesting the platforms could do more to rein in misinformation about other topics, such as climate change, Cook said.

“It shows it is a matter of will and not a matter of technical innovation,” Cook said.

Addressing our species’ attraction to conspiracy theories might be more challenging. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in schools is essential, experts said, since the internet will only grow as a news source.

In recent years, an idea called inoculation theory has gained prominence. It involves using online games or tutorials to train people to think more critically about information.

One example: Cambridge University researchers created the online game Go Viral!, which teaches players by having them create their own misleading content.

Studies show the games increase resistance to online misinformation, but like many vaccines, the effects are temporary, leading researchers to wonder, as Cook said, “How do you give them the booster shot?”

Someday, these games might be placed as advertisements before online videos, or promoted with prizes, as a way to regularly vaccinate the public against misinformation.

“The true fix is education,” said Bouygues. “COVID has shown us how dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories can be, and that we have a lot of work to do.”

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Wife and husband duo Alexis Esseltine and Timothy Scoon n took over Penticton’s Tin Whistle Brewing in October, 2020 and are making their mark on the iconic brew-spot by announcing a new look and an environmental focus. (Contributed)
Penticton’s original brewery goes eco-friendly under new ownership

Tin Whistle Brewing is now one of the first certified carbon neutral breweries in B.C.

Osoyoos Lake. (File)
Osoyoos recognizes community’s many volunteers

There were 17 nominees and winners for 2019 and 2020

Courtesy of pixaby
A call for after-hour vet care in Penticton can’t be met with crisis level vet shortages

Kelowna is only option for pet emergencies in all of Okanagan

A house fire that sent smoke billowing through a Penticton neighbourhood Wednesday, April 21, 2021 was extinguished before any irreversible damage was done. (Facebook photo)
Residents unharmed in second alarm Penticton house fire

Heavy black smoke was seen coming from the back of the Alexander Street home Wednesday night

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP arrested a suspected impaired driver who took an unauthorized short cut to a Coldstream roadway. (File photo)
Impaired driver on slippery slope with Vernon RCMP

Person caught leaving locked Coldstream parking lot by taking unauthorized shortcut to roadway

A police officer stands by a kayak that overturned on Mission Creek in Kelowna on Thursday, April 22. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kayakers flip in Kelowna’s Mission Creek, lose two boats

Two overturned kayaks were spotted floating down the waterway on Thursday, kayaker says everybody made it out safely

Are you considering any ambitious home renovation projects? The Okanagan Regional Library can help. (Black Press file photo)
COLUMN: Redecorate your home with help from the library

Plenty of resources in place for home decoration projects

Peyton Slind enjoys the fruits of his labour. Photo submitted
B.C. youngster builds hammock out of 900 plastic bags

“I’m going to enjoy it until it splits in half.”

(Photo: pixabay.com)
Near miss between small plane and drone above downtown Kelowna

The drone came within 200 feet of colliding with the small aircraft

Nanaimo RCMP say a man was injured while pouring gunpowder on a backyard fire in Harewood on Wednesday, April 21. (File photo)
Nanaimo man hospitalized after pouring gunpowder onto backyard fire

RCMP investigating explosion in Harewood also came across a still for making alcohol on property

Most Read