With the Covid-19 pandemic raging all around us, infecting more than 33 million people and with the death toll hitting 1 million any time now, we have been inundated from all sides with a dizzying quantity of news and information regarding the virus, not all of it factual.
In the fight against Covid-19, fake news, in this case a plethora of Covid-19 conspiracy theories, is a dangerous enemy that we must not underestimate. Myths about the coronavirus — its origins, its properties and how it spreads — have popped up all over the place, snaking around social media platforms, appearing on untrustworthy news sites and even being promulgated by well-known public figures.
A recently-published University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center scientific study shows, alarmingly, that people who believe in unchecked pandemic-related theories are far more likely to not wear masks and far less likely to take the proper precautions against spreading Covid-19.
When something goes wrong in our lives, from little things like getting a headache to more serious cases like possibly having coronavirus symptoms, we immediately take to the Internet to find out more. While the truth is out there, we are also very likely to come across fake news or misinformation.
With Covid-19 taking the year 2020 hostage, and our lives along with it, depression, anxiety, loneliness and paranoia abound, making it a struggle for logic and common sense to win out, for some.
According to psychologists, when outbreaks happen, it is human nature for people to look for a fall guy to take the blame.
“Conspiracy theories bloom in periods of uncertainty and threat, where we seek to make sense of a chaotic world. They often provide a simple answer to a complex problem, and blame a group of conspirators for a problem in society, which can make them very appealing,” psychologist and conspiracy theory researcher Daniel Jolley told the Trauma and Mental Health Report.
In the 1500s, during the Bubonic Plague, accusatory fingers were pointed at the Jews. When the Spanish Flu came in 1918, misinformation led people to think that the Germans were behind the disease. And in 2003, when the Sars outbreak happened, one of the main conspiracy theories floating around was that the virus was laboratory-produced as a biological weapon.
It’s no different today with Covid-19, but the theories being bandied about are wilder and more ridiculous than ever.
Some of the conspiracy theories about Covid-19 are that the virus is bio-engineered; that it was made by China as a biological weapon (others say it was the United States); that drinking bleach or disinfectant will prevent the virus (don’t do it!); that 5G mobile networks can carry the virus or weaken the immune system; and that it is all a population control scheme, with Microsoft’s genius Bill Gates at the helm.
There is so much misinformation about Covid-19 making its way around social media and unreliable news sites — and enough people that believe in it.
The most ridiculous and also potentially dangerous myths have surfaced, such as believing that houseflies transmit and carry Covid-19, that drinking methanol and ethanol can prevent the virus, and that exposing oneself to hot temperatures can provide protection from the coronavirus.
The University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center study, which was published on Sept 21 in the online journal Social Science & Medicine, involved 840 adult respondents from the United States. The two-part research, first conducted in March and then in July, looked at how the respondents’ beliefs and actions relating to the pandemic changed over a period of four months.
The researchers’ findings showed that in March, 28 per cent of the respondents believed the false conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was engineered by the Chinese government as a bio-weapon. In July, it increased to 37 per cent. In March, 15 per cent believed misinformation that the pharmaceutical industry was behind Covid-19, to encourage drug and vaccine sales en masse, and in July, it went up to 17 per cent.
One of the most poignant findings of the Annenberg study was that belief in conspiracy theories can serve as a barrier to logic, reasoning, and safe behaviour, particularly during a pandemic.
The study found that among people who believe in Covid-19 conspiracy theories, only 62 per cent said that they wore masks when outside and around other people. As for those who do not ascribe to coronavirus conspiracies, 95 per cent of them said they were diligent at mask-wearing.
Another astonishing finding was that in March, the Covid-19 conspiracy theory believers were 2.2 times less likely to want to be vaccinated for the virus, and in July, that number grew to 3.5 times.
“Belief in pandemic conspiracy theories appears to be an obstacle to minimising the spread of Covid-19,” said Dr Dan Romer, Annenberg Public Policy Center research director and a study co-author, in a statement.
That the belief in conspiracy theories relating to the pandemic hinders people from performing safety practices that mitigate the spread of the virus is a crisis in itself. But how do we stop it in its tracks before we see its negative effects compounded further?
“Conspiracy theories are difficult to displace because they provide explanations for events that are not fully understood, such as the current pandemic, play on people’s distrust of government and other powerful actors, and involve accusations that cannot be easily fact-checked,” said the study’s co-author and Annenberg Public Policy Center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.