Conspiracy theories aren't new. But their prevalence during the pandemic has real consequences for all of us

Conspiracy theories aren't new. But their prevalence during the pandemic has real consequences for all of us

Catherine Neilan

13:20 14th October 2020

People, as a rule, do not like chaos. Early religion was an attempt to explain seemingly random events like thunder and lightning, earthquakes and even our own existence. We tell stories to better understand the world and when we look at history books, the line that society moves along is often depicted as an inevitable sequence of actions and causes, with forks in the road at critical junctures.

The reality, of course, is that life is messy and complicated. My career, my husband, my children, where we live, are all largely accidental and if I had made a different decision earlier in my life would all be completely different. Everyone's existence is contingent on the meeting of two particular individuals. But to consider that makes us feel insignificant, accidental and very, very small indeed.

Conspiracy theories come from the same kind of thinking. It is inconceivable, believers argue, that these seemingly chaotic and unrelated series of events are, in fact, unrelated. Someone, somewhere, is pulling the strings.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. One only has to look at the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated antisemitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination that dates back to the late 19th century, to see just how willing people were to believe that there were secret plots afoot to keep the people down while allowing the elite to prosper. The term itself was coined by philosopher Karl Popper in his 1952 book The Open Society and Its Enemies.

However until recently conspiracy theories were often kept to the fringe. 'Alternative' beliefs about the moon landing, the deaths of Elvis and Madonna, even September 11, were by and large minority and derided views.

But with the rise of the internet, we have seen a democratisation of stories that purport to tell the truth, without the rigour of professional journalists and academics. And during the pandemic, as people spend more time sat with screens and less time talking to human beings who might be able to rub off the edges, extreme and bizarre conspiracy theories have become increasingly mainstream.

A study of 2,500 people in May found some alarming statistics: 60 per cent of adults believe to some extent that the government is misleading the public about the cause of the pandemic; 40 per cent believe to some extent the spread of the virus is a deliberate attempt by powerful people to gain control and 20 per cent believe to some extent that the virus is a hoax.

Almost half of people think coronavirus was deliberately engineered by China against "the West", while between 20 and 25 per cent blame Jews, Muslims or Bill Gates, who is apparently planning to inject microchips via a global vaccine programme.

Dr Sinéad Lambe, clinical psychologist, observed: "Conspiracy thinking is not isolated to the fringes of society and likely reflects a growing distrust in the government and institutions. Conspiracy beliefs arguably travel further and faster than ever before. Our survey indicates that people who hold such beliefs share them; social media provides a ready-made platform."

This is problematic on many levels - firstly, compliance with things like social distancing and face masks becomes much harder if people do not believe the virus is real, which has implications for all of us because it means Covid is not as well controlled.

Secondly it is leading to a rise in the antivaxx movement, which again, is bad news for the whole country, because it will require sufficient numbers of people to take them to keep the virus under control. In the same way that the measles is coming back because of the universally debunked claims by Andrew Wakefield.

It can put people in danger in other ways too. During the start of the pandemic several 5G masts were torn or burnt down by people who believed they were spreading the virus, despite this being easily falsified.

But there is a wider, more insidious, consequence of conspiracy theories which has the potential to disrupt our entire democracy. After the 2019 General Election, less than half the population trusted the media (44 per cent) with one in five Brits saying they did not trust the BBC at all. The same is true, to varying degrees, of broadsheet newspapers, and it cuts across the political spectrum.

Having heard the term "fake news" until they are blue in the face, it seems people are now largely of the view that most news is indeed untrue, or distorted at best. The mainstream media, far from being seen as a source of trusted and reliable information, is now viewed with deep scepticism.

Not that there is anything wrong with a healthy dose of scepticism. No one should blindly believe everything they read, which is why I am a strong advocate of having multiple sources on stories before making a decision. But with leaders like Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, those in Number 10, questioning objective scientific fact, the value of experts and the medium through which this information is carried, the corrosive nature of conspiracy theories will gain traction and leave people unable to distinguish fact from fiction at a critical point in our democracies.

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Tags: Coronavirus Conspiracy theories Death threats 5G