--- title: Conspiracy theories tags: live-v0.1, misinformation permalink: https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/misinfo_conspiracytheories --- <!---{%hackmd FnZFg00yRhuCcufU_HBc1w %}---> {%hackmd GHtBRFZdTV-X1g8ex-NMQg %} # COVID-19 conspiracy theories ## Pandemics and conspiracy theories Pandemics have always been a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories, and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. When people suffer a loss of control or feel threatened, they become more vulnerable to believing conspiracies. For example, the Black Death in the 14th century inspired anti-Semitic hysteria and when cholera broke out in Russia in 1892, blame fell on doctors and crowds hunted down anybody in a white coat. 19th century Russia does not seem terribly far away in light of recent reports from [Italy](https://www.politico.eu/article/italy-coronavirus-doctors-face-conspiracy-theories/), the [US](https://mashable.com/article/covid-19-healthcare-workers-conspiracy-theories-tweets/?europe=true) and the [UK](https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/01/healthcare-workers-covid-conspiracies-coronavirus-deniers) of doctors and nurses being accused of being "terrorists" or being trolled by people who claim that hospitals are empty and the pandemic is a hoax. Conspiracy theories have also frequently proliferated around vaccines, recurring often in a long history of "anti-vaccine tropes" described by the [Anti-Vaxx Playbook](https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/371/6536/1289.full.pdf) (recently published by the [Center for Countering Digital Hate](https://www.counterhate.com/)). ## Where do conspiracy theories come from? There have been a number of conspiracy theories relating to COVID-19. Conspiracy theories range from Brazilian evangelists communicating to indigenous groups that the vaccine turns [you into an alligator](https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil-amazon/indigenous-leaders-warn-of-missionaries-turning-amazon-villages-against-vaccines-idUKKBN2AB2JR) to a conspiracy theory that was popular during the first wave of the pandemic (March-May 2020) blamed COVID-19 on the 5G broadband system. It is worth considering this theory because it is a particularly bizarre piece of misinformation. (It is also now seemingly past its use-by date so drawing attention to it is unlikely to cause further harm.) There are several strains of this theory, ranging from the claims that [5G alters people’s immune systems](https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/coronavirus-and-5g-a-case-study-of-platforms-content-moderation-of-conspiracy-theories) to the idea that 5G changes people’s DNA, making them more susceptible to infection. Then there’s the idea that [secret messages about 5G and coronavirus](https://fullfact.org/online/5g-coronavirus-20-note/) were hidden in the design of the new £20 note in the UK. In reality, 5G relates to viruses and bank notes as much as the tooth fairy relates to zoology---not at all. It is informative to consider the origin of the theory. It first gained prominence in early March when an American physician, Thomas Cowan, proposed it in a YouTube video (which has since been [taken down](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFN5LUaqxOA) by YouTube according to their [new policy against misinformation and conspiracy theories](https://www.businessinsider.com/youtube-delete-5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-2020-4?r=US&IR=T)). Cowan's [medical licence is on a 5-year probation](https://search.dca.ca.gov/details/8002/G/86923/681efde9c99ad1775263afbc39c180b8) and he is currently prohibited from providing cancer treatment to patients and supervising physician assistants and advanced practice nurses. His 5G video was from a talk he presented at a pseudo-scientific “conference” featuring a [who’s who of science deniers](https://www.freedomsphoenix.com/Media/Media-Files/Health---Human-Rights-Summit-Flyer_2.pdf). One of the headliners was [Andrew Wakefield](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield), a debarred former physician and seminal figure in the anti-vaccination movement who promotes highly damaging misinformation about vaccination based on data that he is known to have falsified. Another “conference” attendee was the President of [Doctors for Disaster Preparedness](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctors_for_Disaster_Preparedness), an organization famous for bestowing awards onto [fossil-fuel funded climate deniers](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willie_Soon) and for giving a platform to a speaker who denied the link between HIV and AIDS, claiming that the link was [invented by government scientists who wanted to cover up other health risks of "the lifestyle of homosexual men](https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-01-20/what-kind-of-man-spends-millions-to-elect-ted-cruz-)". It is important to understand the source of conspiracy theories because that knowledge can help the public become resilient to being misled. The 5G conspiracy theory emerged from the same infrastructure that also supports AIDS denial, anti-vaccination conspiracies, and climate denial. Conspiracy theories also use similar online vectors, taking advantage of the current ['infodemic'](https://www.bmj.com/content/372/bmj.n272) of surplus online information, both factual and false. The availability of false information helps conspiracy theories gain momentum, primarily through social media channels. Amongst Europeans and Amercians, 70-83% of citizens were reported to use the internet for health information ([Massey, 2015](https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10810730.2015.1058444)). However, those who derive their health information from social media are [signficantly less likely to take the vaccine](https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.26.21250246v1)---possibly because 65% of vaccine-related videos on YouTube actually discourage them ([Basch et al., 2017](https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cch.12442)). An incorrect conspiracy about the danger of vaccines has also previously spread on Facebook (see more about [myths about the COVID-19 vaccines and how to debunk them](https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/misinfo_myths)). Furthermore, much like general conspiracy theories, COVID-19 conspiracies often [stem from the misinterpretation and misunderstanding of high-level scientific materials that are published](https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/apr/08/among-covid-sceptics-we-are-being-manipulated-anti-lockdown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other). For example, the claim that the UK has been criticised by the WHO for increasing the sensitivity on PCR testing. This was based on some technical instructions associated with the PCR tests which were misinterpreted. With regards to vaccines, anti-vaccination advocates typically represent well-organized entities with explicit agendas, ranging from financial interests (such as selling alternative cures) to ideological or political commitments (such as opposing specific legislation or individuals, e.g., targeting [Bill Gates](https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/52847648)). These organizations also frequently [shift their goalposts](https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/misinfo_conspiracytheories#4-Conviction-something’s-wrong), claiming that vaccines cause any number of maladies while supporting opposing political platforms. Unfortunately, these themes are widespread on social media---nearly 150 anti-vax organizations have over 10 million followers online ([Larson & Broniatowski, 2021](https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/371/6536/1289.full.pdf)). :::warning Our page on the **[politics of disinformation relating to COVID-19](https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/misinfo_politics)** provides more information about the sources and motivations of disinformation. ::: ## Why do conspiracy theories matter? Conspiracy theories are not harmless. On the contrary, some people have taken the 5G conspiracy theory so seriously that they set 5G towers in the UK on fire and threatened broadband engineers. The destruction of vital communications infrastructure in the middle of a pandemic is a non-trivial hazard. A study by [Jolley and Paterson (2020)](https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12394) showed that belief in the 5G COVID-19 conspiracy theories was associated with a number of variables relating to violence: conspiracy believers showed greater justification of real-life and hypothetical violence relating to 5G mobile technology, and also revealed a greater intent to engage in such behaviors themselves in the future. Furthermore, some conspiracy theories held by individuals about the origins of the pandemic are impacting governments and the status of some world leaders. The recent announcement of the [World Economic Forum (“WEF”) 2021 agenda](https://www.weforum.org/events/the-davos-agenda-2021) led to a resurgence of a conspiracy theory named after a [book](https://www.amazon.com/COVID-19-Great-Reset-Klaus-Schwab/dp/2940631123) released by one of the founders of the WEF. The theory claims of a [totalitarian world takeover](https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2020/11/01/delingpole-only-donald-trump-can-save-us-from-the-great-reset/) and that the pandemic was staged in order to impose forms of control and surveillance. The notion has been [debunked by the BBC](https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/55017002), however it still circulates, and has even been translated into other languages, leading to further spread of misinformation. Specific to COVID-19 vaccines, conspiracy theories perpetuate misinformation that can affect people's vaccination intentions. Across the US, Europe, and Mexico, [between 15-37% of the population believed](https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/03/controlling-misinformation) early COVID-related conspiracies and these beliefs predicted a decrease in future likelihood to get vaccinated. [A more recent survey](https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/dashboard/kff-covid-19-vaccine-monitor-dashboard/) suggests that 34% of the unvacinated population believe in or unsure about COVID-19 related vaccine myths. Out of this subgroup, 41% would like to 'wait and see' before taking the vaccine, and 53% said they would 'definitely not' take the vaccine. In a controlled trial in the US and UK, fewer people responded with a definite intent to take the vaccine as a result of the misinformation they were exposed to online---much less than that necessary for herd immunity ([Loomba et al.,2021.](https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01056-1#citeas)). <span style = "color:green"> Understanding the impact of vaccine misinformation is critical because vaccination [holds the key to reverting to pre-pandemic normalcy](https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.10864). :::warning (Our page on [fallout from COVID-19 misinformation](https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/misinfo_fallout) also documents some of the detrimental effects of misinformation on COVID-19.) ::: Conspiracy theories themselves, as well as misinformation, have been likened to an [infectious disease](https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-02-08/covid-19-coronavirus-vaccine-misinformation-inoculation-theory/13125164). It has been shown that [fake news and misinformation spreads faster on online platforms than the truth and proven facts.](https://news.mit.edu/2018/study-twitter-false-news-travels-faster-true-stories-0308). A [poll](https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/05/26/republicans-democrats-misinformation) of just over 1,500 Americans suggests that 28% of people believed one of the circulating conspiracy theories to be true, even though [it had no evidence to support it and has been deemed false](https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/52847648). When specifically looking at Republicans, this percentage is a lot higher at 44%. Conspiracy theories are also difficult to dislodge because their [narratives often resurface with new fallacious arguments](https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/01/familiarity-strangest-vaccine-conspiracy-theories/617572/). More evidence for the adverse fallout of conspiracy theories can be found in the [Conspiracy Theory Handbook](https://sks.to/conspiracy). ## How can conspiracy theories be spotted? Real conspiracies exist. Volkswagen conspired to cheat emissions tests for their diesel engines. The U.S. National Security Agency secretly spied on civilian internet users. The tobacco industry deceived the public about the harmful health effects of smoking. We know about these conspiracies through internal industry documents, government investigations, or whistleblowers. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, tend to persist for a long time even when there is no decisive evidence for them. Those conspiracy theories are based on a variety of thinking patterns that are characterized by being hyperskeptical of all information that does not fit the theory, over-interpreting evidence that supports a preferred theory, and inconsistent logic. There are 7 traits of conspiratorial thinking, proposed by [Lewandowsky et al. (2015)](https://dx.doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v3i1.443), summarized by the acronym CONSPIR: ![](https://i.imgur.com/lk8h49r.png) We illustrate the 7 traits by considering a conspiracy theory video, “Plandemic”, that enjoyed a few minutes of fame early in 2020. Despite being taken down by YouTube and Facebook, it received [millions of views](https://www.mediamatters.org/coronavirus-covid-19/coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-film-attacking-vaccines-has-racked-million-views). The video is an interview with conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits, a [former virology researcher](https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/12/updated-rare-move-science-without-authors-consent-retracts-paper-tied-mouse-virus) who believes the COVID-19 pandemic is based on vast deception, with the purpose of profiting from selling vaccinations. The video is a textbook case of conspiratorial thinking. Although we use a specific case to illustrate the points, the same traits of conspiratorial thinking apply equally to other conspiracy theories: ### 1. Contradictory beliefs Conspiracy theorists are so committed to disbelieving an official account, it doesn’t matter if [their belief system is internally contradictory](https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/10634516.pdf). The “Plandemic” video advances two false origin stories for the coronavirus. It argues that SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab in Wuhan---but also argues that everybody already has the coronavirus from previous vaccinations, and wearing masks activates it. Believing both causes is mutually inconsistent. ### 2. Overriding suspicion Conspiracy theorists are [overwhelmingly suspicious toward the official account](https://doi.org/10.2307/2564659). That means any scientific evidence that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory must be faked. But if you think the scientific data is faked, this leads down the rabbit hole of believing that any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research consistent with the “official account” must be in on the conspiracy. For COVID-19, this includes the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Anthony Fauci… basically, any group or person who actually knows anything about science must be part of the conspiracy. ### 3. Nefarious intent In a conspiracy theory, the conspirators are [assumed to have evil motives](https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611434786). In the case of “Plandemic,” there’s no limit to the nefarious intent. The video suggests scientists including Anthony Fauci engineered the COVID-19 pandemic, a plot which involves killing [hundreds of thousands of people](https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html) so far for potentially billions of dollars of profit. ### 4. Conviction something’s wrong Conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable. But those revisions tend not to change their [overall conclusion that “something must be wrong”](https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6) and that the official account is based on deception. When “Plandemic” filmmaker Mikki Willis was [asked if he really believed](https://www.propublica.org/article/im-an-investigative-journalist-these-are-the-questions-i-asked-about-the-viral-plandemic-video) COVID-19 was intentionally started for profit, his response was “I don’t know, to be clear, if it’s an intentional or naturally occurring situation. I have no idea.” He has no idea. All he knows for sure is something must be wrong: “It’s too fishy.” ### 5. Persecuted victim Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the [victims of organized persecution](https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v3i1.443). “Plandemic” further ratchets up the persecuted victimhood by characterizing the entire world population as victims of a vast deception, which is disseminated by the media and even ourselves as unwitting accomplices. At the same time, conspiracy theorists see themselves as [brave heroes taking on the villainous conspirators](https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662510393605). ### 6. Immunity to evidence It can be hard to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind because [their theories are self-sealing](https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9760.2008.00325.x). Even absence of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the theory: The reason there’s no proof of the conspiracy is because the conspirators did such a good job covering it up. <!---![](https://i.imgur.com/J4J6lx5.png)---> ### 7. Reinterpreting randomness Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere – they’re all about connecting the dots. Random events are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and [woven into a broader, interconnected pattern](https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1583). Any connections are imbued with sinister meaning. For example, the “Plandemic” video suggestively points to the U.S. National Institutes of Health funding that has gone to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. This is [despite the fact](https://www.factcheck.org/2020/05/the-falsehoods-of-the-plandemic-video/) that the lab is just one of many international collaborators on a project that sought to examine the risk of future viruses emerging from wildlife. Here is a video that walks you through these 7 traits in the context of the "Plandemic" video: {%youtube Rban0JGEimE %} <span style = "color:green"> Further to this, [First Draft (a non-profit that tackles misinformation)](https://medium.com/1st-draft/finding-misinformation-with-rumor-cues-ee1355fb82ae) recently highlighted how keywords related to to rumours (known as "rumour cues") can be tracked to identify certain information online relating to a specific topic. Spotting these keywords could be a way to identify misinformation, as "networked rumoring can drive life-threatening misinformation". ---- ## Who is susceptible to conspiratorial thinking? Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to protecting people against being misled, especially when we are most vulnerable: in times of crises and uncertainty, which routinely give rise to conspiracy theories. It is also important to consider [who is most susceptible](https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/03/controlling-misinformation) to believing and spreading conspiracy theories, so protection focus can be placed on relevant groups. This may include those who: * Use intuition when processing information, rather than analytical thinking; * Have certain poltical ideologies, particularly far-right beliefs; * <span style = "color:green">Have [lower levels of education](https://psyarxiv.com/t62s7/) * Belong to certain demographic groups - men support conspiracy theories more than women and older adults share more virus-related information (including misinformation) than younger adults. However, younger adults are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories than older adults. COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs have been found to be positively correlated with beliefs in other unrelated conspiracies and a general conspiracy mindset ([Juanchich et al., 2021](https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2796)). Belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories also negatively correlate with trust in government and a tendency towards analytical thinking (vs. intuitive thinking). Unexpectedly however, in Juanchich et al.'s study in the UK, COVID-19 conspiracy believers adhered strictly to basic health guidelines and advanced health protective measures, just like non-believers. They were, however, less likely to install the national contact-tracing app, get tested, and vaccinated. With other research reported in a preprint finding that between [6% and 37% of individuals](https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.10864) consider COVID-19 conspiracy rumors believable, this could be problematic for take-up of the latter public health measures. <span style = "color:green"> More [recent research](https://psyarxiv.com/y87rm/) also corroborates the association between those who identify as right-wing and higher vaccine hesitancy. This was further related to beliefs in corresponding COVID-19 conspiracies, as well as an overall and general distrust in science ([Winter et al., 2021](https://psyarxiv.com/y87rm/)). ---- ## Resources to combat conspiracy theories It is important to remember that [conspiracy theories and fake news are often deemed as counternarratives](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4353697/) by those that hold those views. Therefore, trying to combat conspiracy theories tends to be a complicated issue. A few strategies have been proposed to try and lessen the impact of, and try to combat conspiracy theories completely. The idea of [preventing](https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-02-08/covid-19-coronavirus-vaccine-misinformation-inoculation-theory/13125164?utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_amp&utm_campaign=abc_news_amp&utm_content=mailmisiformation) misinformation and conspiracy theories being accepted in the first place is key, as once individuals believe in a theory, it is much harder to disprove it to them. For example, the ["innoculation theory"](https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2021-02-08/covid-19-coronavirus-vaccine-misinformation-inoculation-theory/13125164?utm_medium=content_shared&utm_source=abc_news_amp&utm_campaign=abc_news_amp&utm_content=mail) suggests to expose people to misinformation tricks in the hopes that they are better at identifying misinformation in the future; much like giving someone a weakened form of a virus in a vaccination to ensure they are protected against the full virus in the future. Here are some concise guides that tell you how to talk about conspiracy theories to believers and others. | | | |---| -------- | | [![](https://i.imgur.com/bH3BudY.png)](http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/flyer_v18.pdf) | [![](https://i.imgur.com/dt4mPdF.png)](http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/flyer_short_v3.pdf) | --- **Our page dedicated to [argument quality](https://c19vax.scibeh.org/pages/argumentquality) provides further hints about how one can spot weak arguments that are unlikely to be true.** ---- The _Conspiracy Theory Handbook_ provides an in-depth analysis of conspiracy theories and how to deal with them. {%pdf https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf %} The _Conspiracy Theory Handbook_ is [available in 10 languages](https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/conspiracy-theory-handbook/). ---- The European Commission has a video on tackling COVID-19 conspiracy theories and misinformation, and [more resources](https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/fighting-disinformation_en) on fighting disinformation. <iframe src="https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/embed/index.html?ref=I-187719&lg=EN" id="videoplayer" width="100%" height="480px" title="Statement by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, on disinformation during the coronavirus crisis (English version)" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" webkitAllowFullScreen="true" mozallowfullscreen="true" allowFullScreen="true"></iframe> ____ <sub>Some of the material on this page is adapted from two articles in _The Conversation_ published by John Cook, Stephan Lewandowsky, Sander van der Linden, and Ullrich Ecker. The original articles can be found [here](https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-conspiracy-theories-are-dangerous-heres-how-to-stop-them-spreading-136564) and [here](https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-the-seven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483). </sub> <sub>Page contributors: Stephan Lewandowsky, Xana Butt, Marta Radosevic, Emily Bigg, Jasmine Hollingworth, Dawn Holford</sub> {%hackmd GHtBRFZdTV-X1g8ex-NMQg %} {%hackmd TLvrFXK3QuCTATgnMJ2rng %} {%hackmd oTcI4lFnS12N2biKAaBP6w %}