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When conspiracy theories boom(erang)

Why health-related conspiracy theories, disinformationand distrust in governments matter

A man stands outside a closed coffee shop in Italy, which was worst hit in Europe by the virus.

Uncertainty is almost always unsettling and trying to keep up with coronavirus (COVID-19) related headlines in the news is hard work. To make matters worse, this combination of uncertainty, heightened emotions and information overload create the perfect environment for scams, disinformation campaigns and conspiracy theories, all of which are spreading equally fast and with the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.

So much so, that the World Health Organization (WHO) has had to create a Myth Busters page to counter the inevitable, speedy spread of disinformation.

An over-the-top title may be easy to spot sitting by itself. What’s a little bit more insidious is when false information is thrown into the giant melting pot of the many virus-related social media outlets. When conspiracy theories are sitting alongside legitimate news items, tabloid fodder, memes, personal anecdotes, opinions and government spin, even the most vigilant user is going to find it difficult to wade through the muddied waters when searching for information.

Conspiracies throughout history

Studies show that conspiracy theories have a tendency to increase in times of crises. This is because they provide people with simplified answers, notably to questions about how a crisis situation emerged and which societal actors can, and cannot, be trusted.  

A crisis often leads people to feel uncertain or that they lack control of their environment. A conspiracy theory helps them make sense of the world by specifying the causes of important events, which further helps them predict, and anticipate the future.  

Historically, conspiracy theories have always been with us in one form or another. The emperors and politicians of ancient Rome, for example, saw conspiracies everywhere they looked and the wrong political alignment at the wrong time could easily get you killed.

Medieval societies also had their fair share of conspiracies, with some of the worst being directed towards Jewish communities around Europe. And let’s not forget all those women who gathered in secret to ‘conspire’ with the devil, as described by the infamous 15th-century book Malleus Maleficarum (the Witches Hammer) by Heinrich Kramer.

Conspiracies about the staged moon landing, the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, the terrorist attacks of 11 September, to name but a few, were so pervasive that they now form part of our collective memory, whether we believe them or not.

Us and Them

A conspiracy theory is the suspicion that a group of individuals have secretly joined together to plan evil acts.

The definition implies that a conspiracy always involves more than one person working together, possibly as part of a larger group or coalition. It also implies that this conspiring group is the enemy – “they” are secretly trying to harm “us”.

According to Jan-Willem van Prooijen from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the root of conspiracy thinking lies in our ancient instinct to divide the social world into “us” and “them”. This is an instinct that is, incidentally, still very much a part of the Maltese mindset and which is constantly amplified and exploited by the island’s political discourse.  

Before the agricultural revolution that took place approximately 12,000 years ago, human beings lived in small groups of hunter gatherers. These groups were likely to have experienced lethal conflict with one another at some point, so it is safe to assume that ancient humans would have had to be wary of the intentions of rival groups.

This wariness in order to survive is, what van Prooijen believes, enabled us to develop the psychological feature of making assumptions about other people’s intentions. Assumptions that allowed ancestral humans to take the appropriate life saving action in time.

This was 12,000 years ago and the way human beings live has changed dramatically. On an evolutionary scale, however, 12,000 years is a mere fraction of time, and our innate predispositions have not changed as fast.

While we have retained ancestral instincts, we live in a modern world.  Therefore, even though conspiracy theories evolved as a lifesaving tool in the past, that does not mean it is necessary or useful to believe in them in the present. Quite the opposite might now be true.

Many present day conspiracy theories have not adapted well to our modern needs and often lead to poor choices such as rejecting vaccines or life saving treatments. It is also fairly obvious what happens when the hostile “them” are ethnic or religious minorities.

History is replete with examples of conspiracy theories blaming one group or another for a crisis in society, amplifying xenophobia, discrimination, exclusionary policies and, ultimately, violence

The consequences of conspiracy theories and government spin

In light of the current situation, if “them” are medical professionals, then people who endorse conspiracy theories about the coronavirus may be less likely to follow health advice. Instead, they are more likely to have negative attitudes towards prevention behaviour, or even use dangerous alternatives as treatments.

To make matters worse, a number of governments have botched their initial responses to the outbreak, doing very little to quell citizens fears and suspicions. It’s no secret that the Chinese government tried repeatedly to downplay, as well as silence, the medical professionals who were reporting on the virus’s severity.

A similar poor response by Iran has meant that many of its citizens do not trust the government’s official channels for health advice and, to be fair, why should they? Their Deputy Health Minister went on television to tell reporters that the government had everything under control only to be tested positive for the virus the next day.

In January, after three days of strong denials and false claims, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) admitted it had shot down a Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 with 176 passengers and crew on-board.

And it’s not just authoritarian regimes. The president of the United States, Donald Trump, already famous for his direct role in the spread of political conspiracy theories and false information, is still downplaying the severity of the outbreak using a mixture of blame-shifting and half-truths, all of which are in direct conflict with the health authorities advocating caution and prevention.

It’s easy for a government to be “clever” and deploy the “us” and “them” discourse to gain political mileage, especially if “them” are powerless individuals. It’s also easy for a government to use its resources to fabricate spin, to try and discredit the independent press, obstruct the course of justice and silence its critics. It’s easy for a government to shift blame, refuse to be held accountable and even spread its own conspiracy theories. It’s easy, up until it isn’t.

In a health-related crisis such as the one we’re currently experiencing, governments suddenly need all their citizens to trust in them and the information they are feeding them, or risk making a bad situation worse. Then what?

Uncertainty is more than just unsettling – it could be a terrible thing.

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