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The spread of the corona virus - a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. Why is it dangerous?

The proliferation of fake and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus is so common that the World Health Organization (WHO) has created a special webpage to try and deal with them.

By: Daniel Jolley, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Northumbria University, Newcastle and Pia Lamberti, PhD Researcher in Social and Forensic Psychology, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz

The corona virus is spreading and with it also conspiracy theories. Image: Shutterstock
The corona virus is spreading and with it also conspiracy theories. Image: Shutterstock

The corona virus continues to spread around the world, and at every moment we are reporting new infections, sick people and, God forbid, new deaths from the virus (also in Israel AB). With the virus, conspiracy theories are spreading just as quickly, claiming that powerful actors are plotting to do something bad with the help of the virus. Our research into medical conspiracy theories shows that this has the potential to be just as dangerous to human societies as the outbreak itself.

One conspiracy theory suggests that the corona virus is actually a biological weapon engineered by the CIA as a means of war against China. Others are convinced that the UK and US governments spread the coronavirus as a way to make money from a potential vaccine.

Although many of these conspiracy theories seem far-fetched and far from reality, the belief that evil forces are weaving a secret plan is common in every human society. YouGov survey A study from 2019 found that 16% of respondents in Spain believe that the AIDS virus was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organization. And 27% of the French and 12% of the British respondents were convinced that "the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is deliberately hidden from the public".
The proliferation of fake and conspiracy theories surrounding the virus is so widespread that the World Health Organization (WHO) created a web page called "myths busters" to try and deal with them.

The proliferation of conspiracy theories

Studies show that conspiracy theories have a tendency to spread in moments of crisis in society - such as terrorist attacks, rapid political changes or an economic crisis. Conspiracy theories flourish in times of uncertainty and threat, when we seek to make sense of the chaotic world. Those are the same conditions that are created due to virus outbreaks, which explains the spread of conspiracy theories about the corona virus.

Similar conditions occurred with the Zika virus outbreak in 2015-16. Conspiracy theories claimed that the Zika virus was a biological weapon and did not arise by natural occurrence. Research examining comments on Reddit articles during the Zika virus outbreak found that conspiracy arguments were the commenters' way of coping with the extreme uncertainty they felt about Zika.

Trusting the recommendations of professionals and organizations is an important resource for dealing with a health crisis. But people who believe in conspiracy theories generally distrust groups they perceive as powerful, including executives, politicians and pharmaceutical companies. If people do not trust the health system, they are less likely to seek medical advice.

Researchers have shown that medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust of medical authorities, which can affect people's willingness to protect themselves. People who support medical conspiracy theories are less likely to get vaccinated or use antibiotics and more likely to take herbal or vitamin supplements. Also, they are more likely to say that they would trust the medical advice of non-professionals such as friends and family members (and also parties such as Dr. Google AB)

Serious implications

In light of these findings, people who support conspiracy theories about the corona virus may avoid hygienic actions such as frequent manual cleaning with the help of soap or alcohol-based rubbing, or enter self-isolation after visiting risk areas.
Instead, these individuals may have negative attitudes toward preventive behavior or use risky alternatives as treatments. This will increase the likelihood of the spread of the virus and increase the danger to the public.

Already today we can see "alternative healing approaches" for the corona virus, some of them very dangerous. The promoters of the popular conspiracy theory QAnon, for example, said that the corona virus was designed by the so-called "deep state" and claimed that it is possible to protect against the virus by drinking bleach.

The spread of medical conspiracy theories can have dire consequences for other parts of society as well. For example, during the Black Death in Europe, Jews were blamed for the plague. These conspiracy theories led to violent attacks and massacres in Jewish communities all over Europe. The coronavirus outbreak has led to a global increase in racist attacks targeting people of Asian appearance.

However, it is possible to intervene and stop the spread of conspiracy theories. Studies show that campaigns that promote situations against medical conspiracy theories may be somewhat successful in repairing the damage of conspiracy beliefs. Social games such as News News, where people can play the role of a fake news producer, have been shown to improve people's ability to detect and counter misinformation.

Conspiracy theories can be very damaging to society. Not only can they affect people's health choices, they can also interfere with the way different groups treat each other and increase animosity and violence towards those who are perceived as partners in the "connection". And also to act to fight the spread of the corona virus. Governments must also act to prevent the spread of misinformation and conspiracies regarding the virus.

For an article in The Conversaton

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