Conspiracy theories began to circulate on social media almost immediately after the first reports of COVID-19. Is the virus real or a hoax? Is it a bioweapon created in a Chinese lab? These conspiracy theories are typically intergroup, with one group being blamed for either manufacturing the virus or controlling public opinion about it. In this article, we will discuss why people are drawn to conspiracy theories in general, as well as why conspiracy theories appear to have thrived during the pandemic.
I’ll go over the implications of these conspiracy theories for individuals, groups, and societies. After that, I’ll go over some potential strategies for dealing with the negative consequences of conspiracy theories. Finally, I will discuss some open research questions concerning COVID-19 conspiracy theories, with a particular emphasis on the potential impact of these conspiracy theories on group processes and intergroup relations.
Conspiracy theories began to emerge almost immediately after the first reports of the COVID-19 outbreak with many of them stemming from pre-existing tensions within and between groups. For example, some people believed that COVID-19 was deliberately created by the Chinese to wage war on the United States from the beginning of the pandemic or vice versa. Others believed that COVID-19 was a hoax or was exaggerated by left-wingers as part of a plot to derail Donald Trump’s re-election campaign as the pandemic progressed.
These conspiracy theories persist, and a vocal minority of people protested against the mask and restrictions put by governments what they see as a direct attack on their civil liberties. This article will explain why people believe in conspiracy theories like these, and why they’re likely to appeal to people during a pandemic. It also discusses the potential dangers of COVID-19 conspiracy theories for individuals, groups, and societies, as well as what can be done to address them.
Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories seek to explain significant events and circumstances by blaming them on the evil deeds of secret and powerful groups. The psychological literature on this topic has grown rapidly in the last 15 years, indicating that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when their basic psychological needs are not met. The first set of needs is epistemic, which includes a desire to satisfy curiosity and avoid uncertainty. For example, research has linked conspiracy beliefs to the search for patterns and meaning, as well as lower levels of education. The second set of needs is existential, which includes the desire to re-establish a threatened sense of security and control. People are more likely to believe conspiracy theories when they are anxious or worried and when they believe they have no control. The third set of needs is social, which includes the desire to be positive about oneself and one’s groups. People are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories if they need to feel different from others, if they need to belong, or if they believe their group is underappreciated.
People’s psychological needs are likely to be particularly frustrated during a pandemic. Uncertainties abound, and people are concerned about their own and their loved ones’ futures. They are looking for information to help them answer critical questions about their economic future. In addition, the information landscape is complex, and people are frequently confronted with contradictory information. One week, people are asked to “eat out to support” local restaurants, and the following week, they are asked to stay indoors. Furthermore, people have experienced and, in many cases, continue to experience long periods of social isolation, limiting their access to social support that can help with both physical and mental health. They are also concerned that the actions of powerful outgroups, such as governments, or pharmaceutical companies are exacerbating the situation for their economic gain. In general, research indicates that conspiracy theories thrive during times of crisis as people seek ways to cope with difficult and uncertain circumstances. As a result, the time has come for conspiracy theories to flourish (Die Gelegenheit ist günstig).
Conspiracy Theories and Their Consequences
Conspiracy theories have been linked to climate denial, vaccine refusal, political apathy, workplace apathy, prejudice, crime, and violence in numerous researches. That implicates that conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are no exception and that have a negative impact on people’s intentions to follow and adopt the preventive measures recommended by public health authorities. For example, Romer and Jamieson (2020) assessed belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories in the United States and discovered that these beliefs were negatively associated with perceived pandemic threat, taking preventive measures such as face mask, and intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19 if a vaccine became available (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32967786/).
There are countless negative consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories out there. For example, in 2020, a belief in the conspiracy theory that 5G phone masts spread COVID-19 was all over the web circulating on social media. Several preprints on PsychArXiv.com have also discussed the negative consequences of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Support for alternative remedies such as hydroxychloroquine that was endorsed by the former American President Donald Trump, consumption of garlic and the herbal concoction called Covid-Organics from Madagascar, and self-serving behaviors such as stockpiling are examples of these COVID-19 conspiracy theories, like political, climate change, and antivaccine conspiracy theories, appear to be harmful. At a time when communities need to focus on efforts to halt the virus’s spread and prevent further deaths, it appears that conspiracy theories spreading within and between communities are undermining those efforts.
Let’s examine the Influence of Conspiracy Theories
In general, dealing with the consequences of conspiracy theories is difficult because such theories are frequently multilayered, nebulous, and thus resistant to refutation. Furthermore, belief in conspiracy theories is frequently motivated by strongly held social and political identities, and the bonds of these group memberships are difficult to break. As people become more attached to a group that holds conspiracy beliefs, it is more likely that they will be persuaded to act on their beliefs and cause further harm, as has been the case with anti-mask protests across Germany and the US, often joined by antivaccine activists. Such social movements, which are heavily influenced by conspiracy theories, have the potential to result in acts of violence. Appealing to larger group memberships, on the other hand, may be an effective strategy for dealing with conspiracy theories. For example, while individualists were more likely to believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories, demonstrating a reluctance to engage in preventive behaviors, collectivists were not. People with a collectivist cultural orientation are more likely to express a desire to engage in preventive behaviors. Promoting collectivism, or a “we are all in this together” mentality, may thus be a way to reduce susceptibility to conspiracy theories while also improving people’s COVID-19 response.
Another difficulty in dealing with COVID-19 conspiracy theories is that people are likely to reject direct counterarguments from governments and health authorities because these groups are perceived to be part of the conspiracy and their actions are seen as evidence of their conspiracy. As the pharmaceutical groups, they are also perceived as a group that cannot be trusted to provide useful, honest, and reliable information because they are perceived to have self-serving motives. It doesn’t help those conspiracy theories are frequently promoted by leaders and others in positions of trust and authority. When credible sources of information argue in favor of conspiracy theories, harmful ideas can quickly gain traction. One promising line of research could be to use trusted sources, such as valued ingroup members rather than outgroup members who are typically associated with mistrust to help fight the conspiracy theory.
Another promising line of research suggests that injecting people with factual information can help to reduce the influence of conspiracy theories. Because, if we present direct anti-conspiracy arguments before conspiracy theories, believers in antivaccine conspiracy theories will increase their intentions to follow the preventive measures and opt for the vaccine. However, if conspiracy theories are established thereafter, it will be difficult for them to refute with anti-conspiracy arguments. Preexposure warnings may be a related strategy; that is, if people are explicitly warned ahead of time that the information, they are about to see may be inaccurate or misleading, they may be better able to resist it. This appears to be a viable strategy as long as the warnings emphasize that misinformation can have long-term consequences. Similar interventions that present the facts about COVID-19 or warn people about misleading information, allowing them to spot conspiracy theories before they fall for them, may be effective COVID-19 conspiracy theories repudiation strategies.
Further Research on Conspiracy Theories
COVID-19 conspiracy theories are likely to have unexplored consequences for group processes and intergroup relations.
Firstly, as people disassociate from society and its institutions and see themselves as outsiders, mistrust, and cynicism will likely increase, as will feelings of isolation and marginalization. People who consume conspiracy theories are also more likely to feel powerless rather than powerful which may limit their access to the benefits of a group membership. In difficult times, for example, people are more likely to lose touch with social connections that help them maintain their mental and physical health. Increased social isolation is linked to increased conspiracy belief, so as people face longer periods of lockdown and restrictions on social gatherings during the pandemic, a vicious cycle may emerge.
Secondly, belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories stems primarily from, but may also fuel intergroup tensions. For example, if people believe that China purposefully caused the virus, this may increase negative feelings toward Chinese people as we saw the case across the US. These feelings, compounded by fear, loss of control, and narcissistic beliefs about the morality of one’s own group, may lead to prejudice, hostility, and discrimination against the alleged conspirators. These effects have been consistently demonstrated in the case of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which fuel prejudice and discrimination against Jews in Nazi Germany and across Europe somehow. However, these negative effects can spread to groups that are not considered to be part of the conspiracy. As a result, conspiracy theories about one group can spread and lead to more general discriminatory attitudes toward other disliked outgroups. Conspiracy theories about groups, in a similar vein, can have implications for the legitimization of injustice. Conspiracy theories provide people with another to blame for their situation and may thus serve a system-justifying function, deflecting blame away from dysfunctional societal problems and instead of blaming a few “bad apples”—an outgroup—for society’s ills. Exploring these mechanisms in the context of COVID-19 would be an interesting direction for future research.
Another intriguing question in the current context is whether people who would not normally be drawn to conspiracy theories have become receptive to them during this time, believing conspiracy theories about unrelated events. For example, if a person believes COVID-19 is a hoax, will they be more likely than before to believe climate change is a hoax? According to research and observations, belief in one conspiracy theory tends to coincide with belief in others. This is because conspiracy theories typically cohere with the general proposition that important things are covered up or hidden from the general public. Other conspiracies appear more plausible to people who believe in one conspiracy theory. This raises the troubling possibility that COVID-19 conspiracy theories will lead people down to the possibility of investigating other conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories thrive when people feel threatened, uncertain, or insecure. The COVID-19 pandemic has created an ideal environment for conspiracy theories, which are affecting people’s compliance with preventive measures. As a result, confronting conspiracy theories as well as vaccination misinformation will be critical to preventing further virus spread around the world. The majority of these conspiracy theories are based on pre-existing tensions between groups, and as the pandemic spreads, conspiracy theories are likely to exacerbate these tensions. It is a significant challenge for all of us to deal with these conspiracy theories and their consequences.
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