theories have been the gasoline on the fire that has sparked resistance
to coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing guidelines and doubts over
the danger of the disease.
That resistance escalated into anti-social distancing protests in several states.
Conspiracy theory expert Joanne Miller, University of Delaware associate professor of political science and international relations,
answered a few questions about the danger and psychology at work behind
these beliefs regarding the coronavirus. The conversation has been
edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Why is COVID-19 a prime target for conspiracy theories?
Miller: People tend to believe conspiracy theories because
they help them cope with uncomfortable feelings and events in their
lives, and they protect our worldviews or our beliefs. When it comes to
COVID-19, a lot of us are feeling a loss of control. And in the
political arena, the beliefs that we tend to want to protect are beliefs
about our partisanship or our ideology. We call this motivated
reasoning. When it comes to something like coronavirus it's kind of the
perfect storm of both of these needs.
We see conspiracy theories, for example, that 5G technology is
spreading the virus. In the United Kingdom, some people have actually
set fire to 5G towers. Believing the 5G conspiracy theory gives us some
control because it gives us something to fight. And that's a sense of
control that we can gain back. We can't fight the virus itself, but if
we can find the thing that we think is causing the virus that helps to
regain some control.
Q: What is the potential danger in conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to something like COVID-19?
Miller: It seems like this would be more dangerous than
believing some other more general conspiracy theory. There are two
types of dangers related to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. One type
involves the things like we're seeing — setting fire to 5G towers — but
the other is a potentially broader concern: The potential for people to
resist, as we go forward, either taking antibody tests or resist getting
the vaccine when one is created and rolled out.
Q: Who are most likely to believe these theories?
Miller: People who are experiencing a significant degree of
loss of control right now, people who have lost their jobs, people who
all of a sudden have kids at home and are trying to juggle all sorts of
things that they're not used to juggling. I would predict that anyone
who is feeling a heightened sense of lack of control or uncertainty in
the face of this global pandemic would be more likely to potentially go
to conspiracy theories as a way to sort of regain some of that control.
In addition to uncertainty, there’s also a political aspect to
COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In this case, we've got a president who's a
Republican, so we might expect that Republicans right now might have a
higher need to protect or bolster their worldview that the president is
doing a good job of handling the current situation. I know from some
data that I've collected that Republicans are more likely to believe,
for example, that the virus was created as a biological weapon in China.
But I want to emphasize that those particular beliefs arise from the
fact that there's a Republican in office who's being scrutinized with
regard to his ability and his effectiveness. If the roles were reversed,
and there was a Democrat in the White House, I'd expect that these
needs [to gain control and to protect and bolster their worldview] would
be more activated for Democrats.
Q: What can we do to combat conspiracy theories, especially those related to COVID-19?
Miller: I don't have any silver bullets here, and I don't have
much good news about our ability to convince somebody who believes that
particular conspiracy theory to change their mind. I might be able to
give you a lot of facts that, from my perspective, are incontrovertible
proof that 5G technology isn't spreading this virus. But if that belief
helps to make you feel better because it decreases anxiety and decreases
loss of control, then you're going to resist any of that factual
information that I have. You may believe me for a little while. And then
the minute that your anxiety ramps up again, it will wear off.
We're all susceptible to these types of beliefs. Instead of trying to
convince other people not to believe a particular conspiracy theory,
one thing we can all do is to prevent the spread of conspiracy theories
by saying to ourselves, oh, there's this piece of information that says
that this virus is caused by “X” thing, and this is the reason that I'm
kind of sort of attracted to that explanation right now. It helps me
feel better about the political situation, or it helps me reduce anxiety
and uncertainty. If so, maybe we should take a pause before we share it
with friends and family on social media. Stop and see if other sources
that we trust, even maybe sources that we don't trust, are also talking
about that same thing as a potential cause, and really stop and think
and remind ourselves that we're all susceptible to these kinds of
beliefs. Check the information checker on motives before we spread
information that may be then more widely believed and more widely
Watch a video of Miller discussing some of these issues.
Article by Peter Bothum; illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published April 28, 2020