Why COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist – tech2.org

Why COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist


PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) – Daniel Roberts had not been vaccinated since he was 6 years old. No boosters or tetanus shots. Her parents taught her that vaccines were dangerous, and when the coronavirus hit, they called it a hoax. The vaccine, they said, was the real threat.

So when the 29-year-old Tennessee man got his COVID-19 vaccine at his local Walmart last month, it felt like an accomplishment. A break with his past.

“Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax, ”Roberts said, speaking of conspiracy theories espoused by family and friends. “I don’t know why I didn’t believe it all myself. I guess I chose to believe the facts. “

As the world struggles to break out of control of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories that have led people to avoid masks, social distancing, and vaccines.

They are seeing links between beliefs in the falsehoods of COVID-19 and reliance on social media as a source of news and information.

And they are concluding that COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secret explanations, they give the believer a sense of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or scary.

The findings have implications not only for the response to the pandemic but also for the upcoming “infodemic,” a term used to describe the COVID-19 disinformation crisis.

“We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening next time,” said former US Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in the George W. Bush administration. “The masks become a symbol of his political party. People say vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: who do I believe in? “

About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” intentionally created, according to a Pew Research Center. June survey. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are causing 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 mobile phone towers were burned due to strange claims that 5G wireless signals were triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed doses of the vaccine., medical workers were attacked and hundreds died after consuming toxins touted as cures, all due to the falsehoods of COVID-19.

The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicated and tumultuous events, when the truth may be too disturbing to accept, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which researches and promotes critical thinking on the Internet. get older.

These theories often emerge after significant or terrifying moments in history – the moon landing, the September 11 attacks, or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – when many found it difficult to accept that a lone and deranged gunman could kill the man. President. Big 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 psychologically unsatisfactory.”

This drive is so strong, Cook said, that people often believe in conflicting conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for example, initially thought COVID-19 was linked to cell phone towers, before deciding that the virus was actually a hoax. The only explanations they didn’t receive, he said, were from medical experts.

Distrust of scienceTraditional news sources, institutions and institutions is strongly associated with stronger beliefs in conspiracy theories, as is support for pseudoscience..

Trust in American institutions has been further eroded by false statements from leaders like President Donald Trump, which he repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, suggested bleach as a treatment, and undermined your administration’s own experts.

An analysis Researchers at Cornell University determined that Trump is the biggest driver of false coronavirus claims. Studies also show that conservatives are more likely to believing conspiracy theories or sharing misinformation about COVID-19.

Carmona said he was addressing a group of executives on the coronavirus recently when a man stated that the pandemic was created by the Chinese government and Democrats to harm Trump’s re-election bid.

“When people start to believe their own facts and reject whatever the other party says, we are in real trouble,” he said.

A shared mistrust of American institutions has helped unite various groups behind the banner of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. They include far-right groups upset by the lockdowns and masking mandates, anti-vaccine activists and adherents. by QAnon, who believe that Trump is waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of satanic cannibals.

In addition to gaining insight into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, researchers are finding possible solutions to the broader problem of online misinformation. They include increased efforts by social media companies and new regulations.

Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have long faced criticism for allowing misinformation to flourish. They have acted more aggressively on COVID-19 misinformation, suggesting that platforms could do more to curb misinformation on other issues, such as climate change, Cook said.

“It shows that it is a question of will and not technical innovation,” Cook said.

Addressing the attraction of our species to conspiracy theories could be more challenging. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in schools is essential, experts said, as the Internet will only grow as a source of news.

In recent years, an idea called the inoculation theory has gained prominence. It involves the use of online games. or tutorials to train people to think more critically about information.

An example: researchers at the University of Cambridge created the online game Go Viral!, which teaches gamers by having them create their own misleading content.

Studies show that games increase resistance to misinformation online, but like many vaccines, the effects are temporary, leading researchers to wonder, as Cook put it: “How do you give them the vaccine? reinforcement?”

These games could one day be placed as advertisements before online videos, or promoted with prizes, as a way to regularly vaccinate the public against misinformation.

“The real solution is education,” said Bouygues. “COVID has shown us how dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories can be, and that we have a lot of work to do.”

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