Times-Herald (Vallejo)

WHY COVID-19 CONSPIRACY THEORIES STILL PERSIST

‘500,000 people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax’

- By David Klepper

PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> Daniel Roberts hadn’t had a vaccinatio­n since he was 6. No boosters, no tetanus shots. His parents taught him inoculatio­ns were dangerous, and when the coronaviru­s arrived, they called it a hoax. The vaccine, they said, was the real threat.

So when the 29-year-old Tennessee man got his COVID-19 shot at his local Walmart last month, it felt like an achievemen­t. A break with his past.

“Five hundred thousand

people have died in this country. That’s not a hoax,” Roberts said, speaking of the conspiracy theories embraced by family and friends. ”I don’t know why I didn’t believe all of it myself. I guess I chose to believe the facts.”

As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologi­sts and misinforma­tion experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines.

They’re seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and informatio­n.

And they’re concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of

empowermen­t. By offering hidden or secretive explanatio­ns, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightenin­g.

The findings have implicatio­ns not only for pandemic response but for the next “infodemic,” a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinforma­tion.

“We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time,” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush’s administra­tion. “Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?”

About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentiona­lly, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictio­ns and vaccine safety. Increasing­ly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems.

In January, anti-vaccine activists forced a vaccine clinic at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to close for a day. In Europe, dozens of cell towers burned because of bizarre claims that 5G wireless signals were triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed vaccine doses, medical workers were attacked, and hundreds died after consuming toxins touted as cures

— all because of COVID-19 falsehoods.

The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicate­d, tumultuous events, when the truth may be too troubling to accept, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which researches and promotes critical thinking in the internet age.

Such theories often appear after significan­t or frightenin­g moments in history: the moon landing, the Sept. 11 attacks, or the assassinat­ion of President John F. Kennedy, when many found it difficult to accept that a lone, deranged gunman could kill the president. Vast conspiraci­es involving the CIA, the mob or others are easier to digest.

“People need big explanatio­ns for big problems, for big world events,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist and conspiracy theory expert at Monash University in Australia. “Random explanatio­ns — like bats, or wet markets — are just psychologi­cally unsatisfyi­ng.”

This drive is so strong, Cook said, that people often believe contradict­ory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for instance, initially thought COVID-19 was linked to cell towers, before deciding the virus was actually a hoax. The only explanatio­ns they didn’t entertain, he said, were the ones coming from medical experts.

Distrust of science, institutio­ns and traditiona­l news sources is heavily associated with stronger beliefs in conspiracy theories, as is support for pseudoscie­nce.

Trust in American institutio­ns has been further eroded by false statements from leaders like President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, suggested bleach as a treatment, and undermined his administra­tion’s own experts.

An analysis by Cornell University researcher­s determined Trump to be the greatest driver of false coronaviru­s claims. Studies also show conservati­ves are more likely to believe conspiracy theories or share COVID-19 misinforma­tion.

Carmona said he was addressing a group of executives about the coronaviru­s recently when one man declared that the pandemic was created by the Chinese government and Democrats to hurt Trump’s reelection bid.

“When people start believing their own facts and rejecting anything the other side says, we’re in real trouble,” he said.

A shared distrust in American institutio­ns has helped to unite several groups behind the banner of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. They include farright groups upset about lockdowns and mask mandates, anti-vaccine activists and adherents of QAnon, who believe Trump is waging a secret war against a powerful cabal of satanic cannibals.

Besides gaining insight into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, researcher­s are finding possible solutions to the broader problem of online misinforma­tion. They include stronger efforts by social media companies and new regulation­s.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have long faced criticism for allowing misinforma­tion to flourish. They haveacted more aggressive­ly on COVID-19 misinforma­tion, suggesting the platforms could do more to rein in misinforma­tion about other topics, such as climate change, Cook said.

“It shows it is a matter of will and not a matter of technical innovation,” Cook said.

Addressing our species’ attraction to conspiracy theories might be more challengin­g. Teaching critical thinking and media literacy in schools is essential, experts said, since the internet will only grow as a news source.

In recent years, an idea called inoculatio­n theory has gained prominence. It involves using online games or tutorials to train people to think more critically about informatio­n.

One example: Cambridge University researcher­s created the online game Go Viral!, which teaches players by having them create their own misleading content.

Studies show the games increase resistance to online misinforma­tion, but like many vaccines, the effects are temporary, leading researcher­s to wonder, as Cook said, “How do you give them the booster shot?”

Someday, these games might be placed as advertisem­ents before online videos, or promoted with prizes, as a way to regularly vaccinate the public against misinforma­tion.

“The true fix is education,” said Bouygues. “COVID has shown us how dangerous misinforma­tion and conspiracy theories can be, and that we have a lot of work to do.”

 ?? RICK BO MER — ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE ?? People guther during u “Trush Your Musk Protest” rully hosted by the Utuh Business Revivul ut the Utuh Stute Cupitol in Sult luke City in September of 2020. Psychology experts offer severul suggestion­s for tulking to friends und fumily who believe conspirucy theories ubout COsID-19. Insteud of lecturing or mocking, listen und usk them why they believe whut they believe.
RICK BO MER — ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE People guther during u “Trush Your Musk Protest” rully hosted by the Utuh Business Revivul ut the Utuh Stute Cupitol in Sult luke City in September of 2020. Psychology experts offer severul suggestion­s for tulking to friends und fumily who believe conspirucy theories ubout COsID-19. Insteud of lecturing or mocking, listen und usk them why they believe whut they believe.
 ?? MARK HUMPHREY — ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Daniel Roberts poses for a picture in McMinnvill­e, Tenn. Roberts received a COVID vaccine over the objections of his family, who are against being vaccinated.
MARK HUMPHREY — ASSOCIATED PRESS Daniel Roberts poses for a picture in McMinnvill­e, Tenn. Roberts received a COVID vaccine over the objections of his family, who are against being vaccinated.

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