COVID-19 and Conspiracy Theories

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Day 192: Stay Safe Minnesota

A recently published study suggested that about 50% of the US population believe in some type of conspiracy theories.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators”. This is also referred as “the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of deceptive plots that are largely unknown to the general public“.

Every society is prone to have people believing in such conspiracy theories for events large or small. Even a highly educated and well-informed society like the US, is no exception. Modern technology like Twitter, Facebook, other similar social media and unreliable news outlets have helped rapidly spread such conspiracy to a global scale.

Public health crises have spawned conspiracy theories as far back as when the Black Death ravaged Europe in the 1300s, as people desperately try to make sense of the chaotic forces disrupting their lives.

Tara Law in Times

The New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey has a interesting article on theory about conspiracy theories. Carey writes “More than 1 in 3 Americans believe that the Chinese government engineered the coronavirus as a weapon, and another third are convinced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has exaggerated the threat of Covid-19 to undermine President Trump.”

In a recent study published in Social Science & Medicine, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center concluded that “COVID-19 conspiracy theories are not only commonplace, they’re gaining traction”. Carey writes in the Times that “a belief that the ‘official story’ is in fact a Big Lie, being told by powerful, shadowy interests” is emerging in the mainstream .

Conspiracy Prone Personality Type

In the Times article, Cary refers a most comprehensive study conducted by Atlanta research team, identified following two groups of people that are prone to conspiracy theories:

  • The injustice collector, impulsive and overconfident, who is eager to expose naïveté in everyone but him- or herself.
  • A more solitary, anxious figure, moody and detached, perhaps including many who are older and living alone.

“The personality features that were solidly linked to conspiracy beliefs included some usual suspects: entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness (the confident injustice collector), elevated levels of depressive moods and anxiousness (the moody figure, confined by age or circumstance). [..] personality disorders — a pattern of thinking called ‘psychoticism’.”

With all changes happening in politics, the polarization and lack of respect, conspiracy theories are playing a bigger role in people’s thinking and behavior possibly than ever. And there was no consensus on the psychological bases of conspiracy beliefs.

Shauna Bowes, Research psychologist at Emory University and study lead (Source: New York Times)

“The belief that drug companies invent illnesses to sell their products, for instance, can provide a way of processing a grave diagnosis that arrives out of nowhere. The advent of the pandemic, and its injection into partisan politics in the United States and abroad, lend an urgency to a deeper understanding of conspiracy theories, given that false beliefs — that the C.D.C. is politically compromised, one way or another — can lead millions to ignore public health advice,” adds Carey in the Times.

COVID-19 Conspiracies

Some of the highlights of the Annanberg study, as summarized by Tara Law in the Times include:

  • 38% of people believed a debunked rumor that the Chinese government created the coronavirus as a bioweapon.
  • About 32% believed that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention exaggerated the virus’ danger to hurt Trump politically despite a lack of evidence.
  • About 17% of respondents said they believed that the pharmaceutical industry created the virus to boost drug and vaccine sales—another unfounded theory.
  • Only 62% of people who were most likely to believe the coronavirus conspiracies said they wear a mask every day when they’re around other people away from home, compared to 95% of non-believers.
  • People who believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories were 3.5 times less likely to say they wanted to receive a vaccine in March.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Annenberg Public Policy Center director and study co-author told the Times in a statement “Conspiracy theories are difficult to displace because they provide explanations for events that are not fully understood, such as the current pandemic, play on people’s distrust of government and other powerful actors, and involve accusations that cannot be easily fact-checked”.

Coronavirus Pandemic Watch

According to the MDH latest tally (as of Oct 4, 11 a.m.) the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Minnesota are 103,826 (out of 2,146,411 tested) with 2,080 deaths. According to Johns Hopkins database (as of Oct 4, 2:23 p.m.) there are 7,411,716 confirmed covid19 infection with 209,720 deaths. Globally the covid19 virus has infected 35,008,447 with 1,034,818 deaths.