We speak to an expert on conspiracy theories who tells us why people hold onto unfounded beliefs even when presented with the facts.
From the moment Coronavirus swept across the world, killing thousands of people each day and paralysing life for weeks, another kind of outbreak began to emerge: conspiracy theories. They are proving just as contagious as the virus itself.
Many fantastic and unproven claims have been made about COVID-19, such as the virus being produced as a biological weapon in a lab in China, that it is spread by 5G wireless technology, and even that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates created the disease himself. Some of these conspiracies have had real-life consequences. Dozens of radio towers, assumed to be carrying 5G technology, have been attacked and damaged in Britain and the Netherlands.
So who is spreading them and what is their appeal?
“Psychological research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy unmet psychological needs such as the need for knowledge and certainty, the need for control and autonomy, and the need for self-esteem”.
Professor Karen Douglas is a Social Psychologist from the University of Kent, in the UK. The focus of her research is on conspiracy theories. Douglas told TRT World that conspiracies thrive in climates such as these.
“Conspiracy theories are also appealing to people in times of crisis. When people are uncertain and feel powerless, they might turn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to cope with those feelings”.
Are there people who are predisposed to searching for answers through them? According to research collatedby a group of psychologists at the University of Vienna last year, people who displayed an unusual degree of fear, anxiety and narcissism are most persuaded by conspiracy theories. The authors of the study say anyone that accepts the paranormal and superstitious beliefs, are also inclined toward conspiracies.
Blame should not solely sit at the door of the Alex Jones’s of this world - or other far-right personalities - because the above research found that conspiracy thinking is greatest at both extremes of the political spectrum.
The study’s research also showed that conspiracy theories often have an impact on public health, as its supporters tend to reject vaccination and modern medicine and instead opt for alternative treatments and pseudoscience. Professor Douglas confirms this.
“Many people have a strong mistrust of science and experts,” he explains. “Many people also object to restrictions of their personal freedoms and do not like being instructed what to do. I think this is why we see a lot of conspiracy theories in these areas”.
This is reflected in the now-debunked online video, Plandemic. The video features the discredited virologist, Dr Judy Mikovits, who has blamed the coronavirus outbreak on the conspiracy which suggests that Bill Gates and American pharmaceutical companies have profited from the crisis. She also claims US health agencies suppressed her research which attempted to demonstrate how vaccines weaken the immune system, making people more vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19.
Before the film was removed for being accused of featuring fabricated claims, its seven million views on YouTube were representative of just how popular and widely accepted conspiracy theories can be - especially when it comes to science and medicine.
Professor Douglas explained to TRT World the danger and tangible impact of believing in and propagating conspiracy theories.
“Research suggests that people who believe in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories are less likely to get themselves and their children vaccinated. Exposure to conspiracy theories on climate change makes people less likely to want to reduce their carbon footprint. Political conspiracy theories discourage people from voting. Conspiracy theories can also increase prejudice. There are many negative consequences and we are only really starting to understand what they are”.
So what can be done to challenge and refute such eccentric and dangerous claims? Even when presented with the facts, people that hold onto conspiracy theories rarely reverse their strongly-held beliefs. Douglas says producing the correct information early can help to assuage the potentially damaging effects of them.
"At the moment, we don't know a great deal about how best to respond to conspiracy theories. However, we do know that a type of inoculation does work to reduce the impact of conspiracy theories on people's attitudes and behaviours. That is, presenting the correct factual information before conspiracy theories take hold can sometimes prevent the conspiracy theories influencing people's behaviour (e.g., choosing not to vaccinate their children). A lot of the time, this is not very practical because the conspiracy theories have already gained some traction, but it is a technique that works. So if it is possible to get in early with the correct information, the conspiracy theories may have less impact”.