Viral thoughts: why COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist

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As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines. They’re seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and information.

So when the 29-year-old Tennessee man got his COVID-19 shot at his local Walmart last month, it felt like an achievement. A break with his past. “Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories embraced by family and friends. ”I don’t know why I didn’t believe all of it myself. I guess I chose to believe the facts.” And they’re concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secretive explanations, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightening.

The findings have implications not only for pandemic response but for the next “infodemic,” a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinformation. “We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush’s administration. “Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?”

About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems. In January, anti-vaccine activists forced a vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to close for a day. In Europe, dozens of cell towers burned because of bizarre claims that 5G wireless signals were triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed vaccine doses, medical workers were attacked, and hundreds died after consuming toxins touted as cures — all because of COVID-19 falsehoods. The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicated, tumultuous events, when the truth may be too troubling to accept, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which researches and promotes critical thinking in the internet age.

Such theories often appear after significant or frightening moments in history: the moon landing, the Sept. 11 attacks, or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when many found it difficult to accept that a lone, deranged gunman could kill the president. Vast conspiracies involving the CIA, the mob or others are easier to digest. “People need big explanations for big problems, for big world events,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist and conspiracy theory expert at Monash University in Australia. “Random explanations — like bats, or wet markets — are just psychologically unsatisfying.” This drive is so strong, Cook said, that people often believe contradictory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for instance, initially thought COVID-19 was linked to cell towers, before deciding the virus was actually a hoax. The only explanations they didn’t entertain, he said, were the ones coming from medical experts.

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