The Weekly #44: Thinking about Conspiracy Theories

The Weekly is a series of essays under one thousand words where I write about something I’ve been thinking over the last seven days. This week I want to talk about misinformation and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19, and why they’re more harmful than previous conspiracy theories. I’ve been a little busier than usual this week, so let’s get into it

Alongside the actual pandemic of Covid-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared an infodemic: the “false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak”.

The consequences of misinformation worsen the effect of a disease on a population (that’s us). They can work directly by encouraging less-safe (i.e. less adherence to preventative measures, like wearing a mask or social distancing), as well as specifically dangerous (intentionally attempting to spread the disease) behaviour.

Compassion & Sympathy

Before I begin, I also want to add that over the past few weeks I have felt a lot more sympathy for those who believe COVID-19 misinformation. They are typically associated with lower education, lower trust in the government, lower income, and lower scientific trust.

An American study which looked at adherence to social distancing measures in American citizens found that those who disregarded social distancing were more likely to to have great “pseudoscientific beliefs, lower governmental and institutional trust, lower risk perceptions, and [conservative political] affiliation”.

I used to think believing the conspiracies was a choice, and now I think it’s much more a consequence of feeling unheard. Of seeing the world as unfair, and seeking a reason other than ignorance or a bureaucracy-over-people government.

Believing these conspiracy theories is easier when you don’t want the world to be unfair. When you don’t want there to be a disease that doesn’t threaten you, but does threaten others. So you have to sacrifice something for “nothing” in return . I’ll touch on cognitive dissonance later, but I think we’re retrofitting what we’re seeing into what we want to believe.

Belief in multiple conspiracy theories

I’m near the end of R. Brotherton’s Suspicious minds: why we believe conspiracy theories. In it, they talk about how belief in conspiracy theories are often correlated. If you believe in one, you’re likely to believe in another. Even when they’re unrelated.

Previously, this would mean believing that the Kennedy assassination was connected to 9/11. Or that the Freemasons secretly run our governments and plan our wars. But what do you do with that information? Trot it out at parties to a silence nobody feels comfortable filling, or share it among your co-conspirators to nods and disgruntled feelings?

You might be (probably) wrong, but you’re also (probably) not hurting anybody with your beliefs.

The Wikipedia page for Covid-19 Misinformation runs several thousand words, and details at least ten broad categories of misinformation. These fall into a few groups:

  • The disease: e.g. the belief that COVID-19 was created and released by a secretive global organisation or government to control the global population; or that the mortality of the disease is not worth worrying about.
  • Medical and scientific responses: e.g. the belief that vaccines or medications are not safe or could even be designed to actively harm people
  • Social responses: e.g. the belief that some government or secret organisation are trying to make us obedient to their commands

These are massively different types of arguments. But they all push behaviour in one direction: less adherence to public health policy. Less social distancing, less vaccination, more deaths and suffering.

Separate among the conspiracy theories which have emerged are that COVID-19 was a virus invented as a weapon to control global population, as a trigger to get us to inject microchips into our brains for mind control or to impart our ability to reproduce, and as a way to get us used to wearing face-coverings to make us more obedient citizens.

If you’ve got brain control, you don’t need to persuade anyone. If you’re trying to control population in a physiological way, why do you need wilfully obedient citizens?

It’s possible to hold conflicting beliefs in our head. Our brains will shape them until they’re in-accordance with each other. We call that cognitive dissonance, and it saves us from a lot of distress and time wasted in examining everything we believe and do before we assimilate something new.

Now, with COVID-19, even disconnected beliefs are pointing people’s actions in a single direction. Belief a maligned global power set against the free will of the people, or corrupt medical researchers, or an evil foreign state all point towards the belief that adherence to public health behaviours should be ignored because COVID-19 is a) not-existent, b) not dangerous, or c) a weapon to control us, and should be ignored.

Belief in one conspiracy theory makes you more likely to believe another, even when they’re not related. Even when they’re directly opposing.

Conspiracy theories fill a vacuum

We do not know everything about COVID-19. The origin and nature of the virus itself, our governmental and societal response to it. The chance that we, in June of 2021, know everything there is to know about a pandemic which is still happening are very low. We do not know everything. That statement is caution.

This need for caution, of not overstepping our boundary or certainty, has left gaps in people’s understanding of the disease.

A theory with less evidence than the one it opposes shouldn’t be able to dislodge one with more explanatory power. But they can. When they’re more appealing or more conforming or more sensible to the people hearing them.

We’re already susceptible to these beliefs, and we don’t have the infrastructure (legislative, technological) to stop them spreading. So they’re spreading. And they’re changing actions.

So they’re causing unnecessary deaths.