CARP 2020 Webinar # 4: Conspiracy Theories and COVID-19 is now posted on our YouTube channel. John Cook, George Mason University, Founder of SkepticalScience.com and https://crankyuncle.com/ and Sergei Samoilenko discuss why people become more vulnerable to believing in conspiracy theories.
Pandemics are especially fertile ground for conspiracy theories, as people grasp for order and causal explanations. So it comes as no surprise that conspiracy theories such as “5G caused COVID” or “COVID was bioengineered in a Wuhan lab” have spread through social networks like a contagion. This is a troubling development as conspiracy theories reduce public trust in institutions – this has dangerous consequences when it causes people to ignore expert advice on social distancing. So how do we neutralize the damaging influence of conspiracy theories? To help minimise these harmful effects, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, explains why conspiracy theories are so popular, how to identify the traits of conspiratorial thinking, and what are effective response strategies.
Actual conspiracies do exist but they are rarely discovered through the methods of conspiracy theorists. Rather, real conspiracies get discovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence and being committed to internal consistency. In contrast, conspiratorial thinking is characterized by being hyperskeptical of all information that does not fit the
theory, over-interpreting evidence that supports a preferred theory, and inconsistency.
A number of factors can contribute to people believing and sharing conspiracy theories.
- People who feel powerless or vulnerable are more likely to endorse and spread conspiracy theories. This is seen in online forums where people’s perceived level of threat is strongly linked to proposing conspiracy theories.
- Conspiracy theories allow people to cope with threatening events by focusing blame on a set of conspirators. A conspiracy theory satisfies the need for a “big” event to have a big cause, such as a conspiracy involving MI5 to assassinate Princess Diana.
- For the same reason, people tend to propose conspiratorial explanations for events that are highly unlikely. Conspiracy theories act as a coping mechanism to help people handle uncertainty.
- Conspiracy theories are used to dispute mainstream political interpretations. Conspiratorial groups often use such narratives to claim minority status.
Efforts should therefore focus on protecting the public from exposure to those theories, by inhibiting or slowing the spread of conspiracy theories. If people are preemptively made aware that they might be misled, they can develop resilience to conspiratorial messages. This process is known as inoculation or prebunking. There are two elements to an inoculation: an explicit warning of an impending threat of being misled, and refutation of the misinformation’s arguments. Prebunkings of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have been found to be more effective than debunking.