The COVID-19 pandemic has paved the way for a new kind of outbreak – one involving conspiracy theories.
Different explanations related to the origin and spread of the novel coronavirus have been circulating over the past few weeks. This peaked most recently with the release of a conspiracy theory-laden, documentary-style video titled ‘Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind COVID-19.’ It sheds light on the idea that the coronavirus pandemic was planned and that the virus was developed in a laboratory, which no scientific evidence supports.
Despite its liberal use of misleading information and facts that have not been scientifically proven, the 26-minute video has reportedly been viewed millions of times across multiple social media platforms. The question is – why?
According to Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, much of this interest in COVID-19 conspiracy theories is related to a sense of fear that many are feeling toward the current global situation.
“The fact that people are drawn to conspiracy theories speaks to the climate that people are living in, and right now there’s a lot of fear,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of uncertainty and unknowns around the COVID-19 virus.”
Not only does much remain unknown about the virus itself, but Goldenberg also points to the fact that government and health authorities across the world are constantly adjusting their responses to the pandemic, introducing new policies to prevent it from spreading. This lack of information and constant change create a sense of insecurity and anxiety among people, she said.
David Black, a communications theorist at Royal Roads University in British Columbia, explains that because of this, people are searching even more desperately for answers – ones that not only help make sense of what’s going on, but are easy to accept.
“Conspiracy theory often is more psychologically pleasing and convenient [than reality] – it makes simpler sense than a complex phenomenon,” Black told CTVNews.ca on Monday over the phone. “Its primal simplicity cuts through the noise and confusion and uncertainty that is the world on a normal day, but especially during a pandemic.”
According to Jonathan Jarry, a biologist and science communication expert at McGill University, people are predisposed to believing in things that are not true, mainly because we are incapable of knowing the truth about everything. He also describes the brain as “a belief engine that has to take mental shortcuts to ensure our survival,” something especially true in the context of a global pandemic.
“It’s easy for our brain to string together otherwise random observations and see a link between them even though there isn’t any in real life,” Jarry wrote in an email sent to CTVNews.ca on Monday. “We end up seeing patterns and harmful agents where there are none.”
Black describes conspiracy theory as “a flawed kind of public understanding of the way in which things work.” A mix of illogical thought and bad faith reasoning that takes a social form, it constantly challenges figures of authority, governments and science. Conspiracy theory, he said, discards facts that are inconvenient and accepts information that serves itself.
“If you take all the classic errors in logic, put them all together, and then weaponize it, that’s where you get conspiracy – it’s like the dark side of magical thinking,” said Black. “It can have catastrophic consequences.”
POTENTIAL FOR DANGER
Conspiracy theories pose a grave threat to public health, warns Jarry, especially in the context of a pandemic.
“They use lies and misinformation to fuel distrust in health authorities during a time of crisis which, depending on the theory being peddled, could lead to anti-Asian mistreatment, anti-vaccine sentiment, and an increased spread of the coronavirus due to the abandoning of protective social norms like physical distancing,” he wrote.
The harmful impact of conspiracy theories is already being seen. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said that the virus is unleashing “a tsunami of hate” across the globe, targeting foreigners. A new poll has also found that acts of racism related to COVID-19 against people of Asian heritage is spreading in some of Canada’s largest cities.
Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that some of these theories are being shared by members of the highest levels of government, explains Black, particularly those in the Western world. He points to some of the rhetoric from United States lawmakers as an example of political speech that helps validate conspiratorial claims.
“It’s not unfair to say that, whatever one’s views on that administration, the president and certain of his senior cabinet officials have promulgated conspiracy theories freely and knowingly, and long before this health crisis,” said Black.
Those in positions of power promoting these types of ideas, which otherwise tend to exist on the borders of society, helps make them more mainstream, explains Goldenberg. This essentially blurs the line between what is real and what is not.
“The effect is a serious destabilizing of how we used to understand conspiracy theories,” she said. “Conspiracy theories were always fringe, a little bit on the outside [of society].
“When you get people in the White House repeating these kinds of comments, it suddenly becomes less clear which side is the wild side and which side is the more secure and scientific side.”
THE ROLE PLAYED BY SOCIAL MEDIA
Popular social media platforms have also played a large role in pulling conspiracy theories into the mainstream. Black points to the design features of various platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as helping to incubate conspiracy theories by allowing users to aggregate content from various sources into a single feed.
“Such platforms relativize the authority of information, making fringe sources seem as real and credible as legitimate ones,” he said. “You’re getting a feed from some source, it could be the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or Health Canada, or it could be some marginal person on the corners of the internet who is pushing a conspiracy theory, but all information looks equally legitimate in social media spaces, it’s just coming through your feed.”
Twitter recently announced a new initiative to help tackle misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, the social media site tweeted that it will be introducing new labels and warning messages to add context to tweets with “disputed or misleading information related to COVID-19.”
This comes after the company updated its safety policy to ban tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.”
Facebook is also taking steps to prevent the spread of misinformation surrounding COVID-19. According to the social media company, it will be removing content with claims and conspiracy theories that have been debunked by the World Health Organization or other credible health experts.
Despite these efforts, Goldenberg is skeptical that they will do much in the way of limiting the circulation of false information.
“It’ll help a little bit, not to have that information being circulated, but it’s not going to solve all the problems,” she said. “The fact that that information is out there, the fact that people can share it – in many ways it’s a good thing, this democratization of knowledge that social media has invited, but this is the downside of it.”
Black agrees. By still allowing users to curate their own information environment and choose what they would like to see, this can lead to echo chambers and filtered realities. People are able to expose themselves only to information that is either appealing or that they think – or want – to be true.
“We’re often talking to people who believe in the same things that we do, whether about the moon landing or about vaccinations or about QAnon or about the Illuminati, you name it,” said Black. “Social media platforms are ideally suited to a proliferation of conspiracy theory.”
RESPONDING TO CONSPIRACY THEORIES
According to Black, the simplest solution to avoid promoting these theories is to do your homework using legitimate sources.
“Get off your social media platforms – go to a newspaper, go to a mainstream TV or radio broadcast,” he said. “If you’re interested, go to fact-checking sites that are credible.
“Be a detective in your own life.”
Not only should people be critical of what they consume online, advises Jarry, but they should also be mindful of what they distribute.
“Before you share, think twice; what are the credentials of the person making the claim? A quick Google search can usually help answer this question,” he wrote.
Jarry also recommends verifying information by using additional sources to see what other people are saying on the topic. It’s also important to consider whether it passes the “smell test,” instead of providing an oversimplified solution to a problem that is much more complex.
“When in doubt, don’t share on social media and turn to experts and fact-checking organizations for help.”
In terms of the government’s role in limiting the spread of misinformation, Goldenberg points to Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a good example of maintaining trust between scientific institutions, government and the public.
Frequent media briefings held with the prime minister and compelling science communication by health authorities like Dr. Theresa Tam help the government build trust with members of the public, she explains. This is done through communicating often and honestly about decisions that are made and reasons for them as well as areas that can be improved.
“The picture we get here is of a very socially responsive and scientifically informed government and that is building public trust and that’s how you counter the effect of conspiracy theories,” said Goldenberg. “You have to keep the relationships between public and scientific institutions strong so that people don’t get distracted by the alternative theories.”
With files from CTVNews.ca’s Brooklyn Neustaeter