On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. As the infection rate and death toll continue to rise, fear, racism, panic buying and conspiracy theories are becoming more common. Although conspiracy theories emerged as a cultural phenomenon in the 20th century, similar events have been observed alongside previous pandemics.
When outbreaks occur, the scapegoats are often to blame. Jews were shunned during the bubonic plague in the 16th century. During the Spanish flu of 1918, people feared that it would be deliberately spread by Germans. The 2003 SARS outbreak was believed to have been carried out in a laboratory as a biological weapon. During the 2015 Zika pandemic, conspiracy theorists claimed that the virus was made biotechnologically by Monsanto Corporation. Currently, 29% of Americans believe that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was intentionally made in a laboratory.
Daniel Jolley, a psychologist and conspiracy theory researcher, discussed with the Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) why people turn to conspiracy theories in times of crisis:
“Conspiracy theories are thriving in times of uncertainty and threats as we try to understand a chaotic world. They often give a simple answer to a complex problem and blame a group of conspirators for a problem in society, which can make them very attractive. The “official” answer does not always meet this need, is usually more complex and is often provided by the government, a group that some people do not consider trustworthy. People would prefer to focus on the outsider’s explanations. “
Research shows that conspiracy theories satisfy unmet psychological needs and offer knowledge security in a time of uncertainty. When there is increased fear and fainting, conspiracy theories provide answers to complex questions and help alleviate these uncomfortable feelings. In addition, some research has linked belief in conspiracy theories to the need for uniqueness. In other words, people want to feel powerful and special. as if they have important information that other people don’t have.
Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in the UK who researches conspiracy theories, spoke to the TMHR and said:
“In a time of great uncertainty, people are looking for knowledge, especially when information is developing faster and faster. Of course, people are confused. Conspiracy theories can therefore satisfy the need for accuracy and knowledge. They can also help people deal with existential threats, as they can help them understand the threat they are in. In addition, this could meet the social need to maintain a positive self-image. “
Demographic information shows that people from disadvantaged groups are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but there is inconsistent evidence that there are differences between gender and age. People who lack analytical thinking skills are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories often have a significant negative impact on those who believe them and those around them. They can increase suspicion and lead to a withdrawal from society, including a reduced intent to vaccinate, less exposure to climate science, and a higher likelihood of participating in low-level crime.
Everyone is looking for information during a pandemic. A pandemic can also lead to an infodemic.
-Eleni Neofytou, contributing writer
Feature: PxHere, Creative Commons
First: Cottonbro at Pexels, Creative Commons
Second: Max Muselmann at Pexels, Creative Commons