πŸ”’ Covid-19 and conspiracy theories; a social media bonanza – Dr Daniel Jolley

There are many conspiracy theories about the coronavirus; that it was started in a lab in China and did not originate from a wet market in Wuhan; that 5G can spread the virus, to name a few. We seem to be more drawn to conspiracy theories during the coronavirus outbreak; and there are many doing the rounds in South Africa, which are readily shared on social media platforms. But why are people on social media platforms so keen to spread conspiracy theories? Dr Daniel Jolley, a chartered psychiatrist and senior psychology from the University of Northumbria in the UK who specialises in conspiracies, explains why people believe in them. – Linda van Tilburg

While conspiracy theories arise in moments of crisis in society, due to political change or terrorist attacks. But in essence they are believed in periods of uncertainty and when we feel threatened. So Covid-19 fits this particular example. It’s a crisis and we’re all feeling anxious and uncertain which means that we’re more drawn to conspiracy narratives where we assume that powerful actors are involved. Some conspiracy suggestions of the virus are: it could be a bioweapon; that is human made or it links with 5G, for example but it’s also trying to understand the chaotic world that we are in.
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Shouldn’t we rather turn to science than some theory that somebody might have dreamt up.

It’s scapegoats. It blames a bunch of conspirators for wrongdoings. Covid-19 in particular. We obviously don’t know all the answers. There’s so much uncertainty with regards to how we treat it, how it can be eradicated. So this can breed the conspiracy narrative as people want to understand what’s happened. Well we don’t have the answers. So in that moment to say it’s a government conspiracy or it’s human made, offers a scapegoat. The reason this is happening is because of that conspiracy. So whilst it may seem rational to believe in the official story, that story may not address the special needs that we have i.e. to feel secure and safe.

So is there a different need between the spread, when people thatΒ send it on a WhatsApp group and the people who actually create these stories?

Really good question. Actually I think it’s hard to tease apart. Those who share it and those who share and then leave it, because in psychology where we ask people’s beliefs in conspiracy theories, it’s always about what is said. What do you believe in this particular conspiracy and get them to indicate that. Then we know what is correlated or is associated with people, when sharing that information. To see it in the real world, we have to assume that people who do share it, share it because it matches their private beliefs, which in essence could also stop the sharing of misinformation if we could have people stop and think – am I just sharing this because I believe it, or because it’s making my prior beliefs probably true? But if people can stop and think, they then might not share it as widely as they may have done.

Some of the conspiracy theories are actually taken on by government. What is the motive behind that?

With conspiracy theories, they’re often believed by the in-group towards the out-group. So the in-group process is where we want to see us as different, other people, the example being the Americans believe in the conspiracy theories about the Chinese and similarly the Chinese believe those about the Americans. Which might maintain self-esteem and to show how we’re different to other people. This intricate process can also breed conspiracy theories. That’s just one example, there are many other different examples. Regarding politics, Democrats believe in conspiracies about the Republicans and vice-versa. Regarding the government, I suggest they’re playing a similar role whereby it’s seen as different from others. The Chinese are conspiring, but then the Chinese also believe the Americans are conspiring. So it’s an intricate process.

What interventions can there be to make sure that these rumours are not spread in crisis times?

Interventions are definitely timely. But it is of course difficult. To potentially think of it as two different groups of people. Interventions for the general population, interventions for those at the high end of the conspiracy theorising. For those in the more general, we know that counter arguments do work. So inoculating people with the facts can reduce belief in conspiracy theories and also instill critical thinking abilities. We know those who think more critically are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. This could be based on our skill sets. For those at the higher end, when they’re giving counter arguments, they may discredit it because they’re distrustful of those around them. So instead it’s reframing how we discuss conspiracy theories and the beliefs of those believers. It could be, becoming the trusted messenger where you’re able to discuss their beliefs with them, not in an aggressive way, but in a supportive way. Thereby it suggests it could be affirming their values based on critical thinking abilities, because these people may believe they’re being critical when they’re asking questions but they may not be evaluating the evidence as fully as they could be. So instead of asking them to think about the evidence, ask them to think about the source, what the person has said, and re-affirm that back to their beliefs and get them to think with a critical eye on their conspiracy belief. These could someways change conspiracy theorising, but it’s a challenge and needs to have more work to focus on what we do about them.

If you look at people like the Flat Earthers, you can show them the Earth from a distance and they’d still believe it’s a conspiracy.

So it goes back to trust. Trust the scientists, trust the people around them. They feel empowered by not engaging in this mindset, but it’s difficult.

Is the Covid-19 period leading to more trust in science?

I did see that trust in scientists was quite high in the polls last week. So people in general do seem to be trusting the scientists, which I think is a really positive step.

You talked about critical thinking skills – why do intelligent people believe conspiracy theories?

Well I think it’s because some of those intelligent people, whilst they have the skill sets, they don’t use them. So in that moment of crisis and uncertainty, they fall into some biases. They’re just drawn to the conspiracy narrative, so even though they have the skill sets to ask questions in that moment, they’re not doing that. So it’s a challenge to instill these skills. The next challenge is to make sure people use them. So there’s different ideas to make people think more critically. So for example someone suggested on Twitter, before you tweet something, you have to fill in a question such as “do you know who this person is? Do you trust the source?” So in that moment, they can at least culturally think through before they share it. So make them think critically. A better solution could be to do this every now and again. So every couple of posts you ask a question. It’s just ensuring people start to think more critically. That can be an interesting way to do it, in that way the social media companies may also offer support.