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Why You're Seeing so Many Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

This moment is especially vulnerable.

by Gretchen Brown
May 21, 2020 | Our Future

This article is part of Rewire's Coronavirus: Information You Can Use series.

You know that feeling when a sunny day suddenly turns stormy? The dark clouds rolling in, drenching you before you can step back inside?

That’s sort of what it felt like being on Facebook earlier this month as a certain viral video — “Plandemic” — spread across the platform.

At first it was just a few sporadic posts. Then suddenly, it was all I saw.

The video was quickly debunked by scientists and journalists. YouTube, Instagram and Facebook repeatedly removed the video — the latter citing its policy to “take down COVID-19 information that could lead to imminent harm.”

But the video continued to spread, sometimes posted with a different title and the text “just watch this,” in an effort to prevent the video’s removal.

The New York Times tracked its move from a QAnon-linked Facebook page, to a celebrity doctor, to an MMA fighter, to over 8 million views across platforms.

The video was the perfect storm for believability. 

“If you name the biggest enemies everyone already dislikes, it’s easy to get (people) to buy in,” said Joseph E. Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami, and an expert on conspiracy theories.

“Everyone’s following coronavirus right now. It’s not hard to get an audience for your COVID-19 conspiracy theory.”

Why do people believe conspiracies?

Uscinski said there are two main explanations, in general, for why someone might believe a conspiracy theory.

Some people just see the world in conspiratorial terms. When they see an event, they’re more likely to jump to a conspiracy theory as an explanation for it. Researchers don’t know why this is.

On the other hand, politics can also influence people to believe in conspiracies.

“So when people are partisan, it’s easy for them to think that the other side is up to no good,” he said. 

When you already don’t like someone, or something, it’s easier to believe something bad about them. So if you’re already not a big fan of the immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci for making you stay at home, a video claiming he’s behind the pandemic feels more believable.

a woman watches a video about coronavirus. REWIRE PBS Our Future Conspiracy theories
The internet is an ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories, but it didn't create them.  |  Credit: Adobe

This isn’t the first time that disinformation has spread during the COVID-19 pandemic. You might have seen the conspiracy claiming that 5G caused the coronavirus.

And last month, a press conference from two California doctors went viral, similarly for claiming that the pandemic is “no worse than the flu.”

It was denounced by most of the medical community, such as the American College of Emergency Physicians, but people just kept sharing it.

That’s because there’s something about this moment, too, that makes it extra-vulnerable to conspiracies.

“There’s not a lot of solid information about the virus itself. No one really knows where it came from or how it originated, how long we’re going to be in this lockdown,” said Julie Smith, a professor of media communications and digital literacy at Webster University.

“Because there’s a lack of really valid information, all that other junk fills that gap.”

Conspiracy theories throughout history

The internet is an ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Information spreads exponentially on social media platforms, amplified by thought leaders and social media influencers.

But the internet didn’t create conspiracy theories. They’ve been around for much, much longer than that.

“It only took a few years for four out of five Americans to believe in some kind of Kennedy assasination theory in the 1960s,” Uscinski said.

“That’s probably the highest polling that I’ve seen on any conspiracy theory. No internet needed.”

Uscinski says conspiracy theories aren’t an internet problem, they’re a human problem. One of the repeated narratives of COVID-19 conspiracies has been that the government created the virus to control its citizens.

This is similar to a popular conspiracy that started circulating in the 1980s about the HIV/AIDS crisis, which claimed that the virus was created by the CIA to kill gay and black people.

The conspiracy theory didn’t go away. 

By 2005, according to a survey published in medical journal The Lancet, one in seven black people believed the conspiracy, “and more than half said there was a cure for HIV/AIDS that was being withheld from the poor.”

The Lancet article points out that black folks have many reasons to distrust the government. As a whole, public trust of the U.S. government across all races and ethnicities is close to the lowest it’s ever been.

So it might not be hard to believe a conspiracy theory that puts the government at fault. But it’s still important to do your own vetting of a theory, Smith said, before you believe what it claims.

“We cannot depend on Mark Zuckerberg to verify things. We have to do it for ourselves,” she said.

How to tell if a source is legit

Smith, who teaches media literacy, tells her students to practice what she calls lateral reading.

When you see something online, especially something that feels too good to be true, you should compare it to coverage from as many other sources to be possible.

It all goes back to a set of questions: who created the message? What are they doing to grab my attention? How might different people understand it differently? Who is profiting from the message? What information is left out?

“These are questions I encourage my students to ask about every single media message,” she said.

While conspiracy theories have always existed in some form, media consumption today is much different than it was in even the 1980s. In the old landscape, you were served news from a limited number of TV networks and print newspapers.

Today, anyone can pull together information into an article or video and put it online and make it look legitimate, even if none of the information was fact-checked.

According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans get their news from social media.

Even if you go through all these steps for your own media consumption, it can be hard to let someone else know that the article they just shared isn’t legitimate.

“Once people identify with a set of ideas, it’s going to be tough to wrestle it from them,” Uscinski said. “That’s not just true of conspiracy theorists.”

Imagine sending a Catholic person a link to an article and thinking that will convince them to convert to Judaism. If someone has their heels dug in to a particular viewpoint, they won’t budge from a simple link. 

On the other hand, people who are sharing these links from the edge — who say they’re not sure what to believe — are much more reachable.

Smith recommends reaching out to folks privately, where they may be less defensive, instead of trying to start a fight publicly.

Uscinski recommends asking the poster for their source, so they have to do some self-reflection on where they’re getting the information.

Correcting misinformation online on a small or large scale can feel like an uphill battle.

While some findings show that older adults are more likely to fall into misinformation online, a 2016 Stanford study of K-12 and college students showed that many young people aren’t sufficiently media literate, either.

Courses in critical thinking have been found to reduce peoples’ beliefs in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

Not every conspiracy theory turns out to be false. It could be said that Woodward and Bernstein, investigating Watergate, were looking into a conspiracy theory and found evidence that actually supported it.

But with most conspiracy theories, folks believe them before there’s sufficient evidence to back them up. It’s like believing in a Watergate cover-up before interviewing Deep Throat.

“And that’s the problem,” Uscinski said. “People are jumping the gun on belief.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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