Since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, the voices of scientists have become more prominent in the media with the aim of explaining what the new virus looks like, the complex ways it interacts with our body, and the most recent advances in searching of a vaccine and a treatment.
However, easy – and mostly free – access to reliable scientific information expressed in simple terms has not been enough to stop the proliferation of conspiracy theories they lack any scientific evidence.
The idea that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately created in a laboratory by the pharmaceutical industry to make money from the sale of a vaccine, that it was spread by the governments of China or the United States, or that it is spread through 5G are accepted by a significant number of people in the world, a global survey recently revealed.
Among the most popular is the theory that questions the veracity of the death toll, which as of November 2 had exceeded 1.2 million, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Of the nearly 26,000 people from 25 countries who took part in the survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project in association with the British newspaper The Guardian, around 40% in Mexico, Greece, South Africa and Poland considered that the number of victims was much lower to the reported.
This percentage was only exceeded in Nigeria, where 60% of the participants believe that this figure is an exaggeration.
However, the theory that has by far the most followers is the one that maintains that there are “a single group of people who secretly control events and run the world“beyond national governments.
This idea, the survey indicates, was classified as “definitive or probably true” by 78% of Nigerians, 68% of South Africans, 55% of Spaniards, 47% of Poles, 45% of Italians, 37% of Americans, 36% of the French and 28% of the British surveyed.
Times of uncertainty
Why has the pandemic become a fertile ground for the emergence of conspiracy theories?
“It is not a surprise,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, in the United Kingdom, and an expert in misinformation.
“Any situation of fear where people feel that lose control of your life it will make some susceptible to conspiracy theories. ”
“In the United States, for example, conspiracy theories appear every time there is a mass shooting, like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School (2012). They appear a day or two later and last for a long time.”
“That’s basically the background. And a pandemic is a supreme case of something that frightens people and leaves her without certainties. ”
In the midst of this sea of unanswered questions, conspiracy theories fulfill the psychological function of offering relief who believes in them, “because now they have someone to blame for what is happening.”
The dangers they create, especially in times of pandemic, are many.
Those who believe in them are more likely to ignore the recommendationss sanitary —Such as wearing masks, maintaining social distance, or frequent hand washing — to limit the spread of the disease and, in the worst case, to commit acts of violence.
We are not all equally susceptible to falling for these fallacious explanations of reality.
“People young boys they tend to believe more than older men in conspiracy theories. And people with a higher level of education are less likely to believe in them, “Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, in the United Kingdom, tells BBC World.
The link with the political trend, on the other hand, is more complicated.
“The people in extremes – both on the right and on the left – tend to believe fervently in them, as opposed to the general idea that conspiracy theories are the domain of the right, “says Douglas.
As for the personality traits that make us comparatively more vulnerable, the situation is not so black and white either.
“Psychologists have moved away from the idea that there is a profile of the ‘conspiracy theorist’, because the context it is very important “, explains the psychologist to BBC Mundo.
“Instead, they seem to attract people when important psychological needs are not met: the first is related to the knowledge and certainty, the second refers to the need to security and the third to that of feel good with oneself “.
In search of a culprit
Nor can it be foreseen what kinds of theories will emerge in a given crisis, nor which ones will last longer.
On the theory that accuses 5G technology of spreading covid-19, which gained strength at the beginning of the pandemic and triggered the burning of cell phone antennas in different parts of the world, Lewandowsky emphasizes that, in the past, it circulated a very similar idea.
“In the 1918 flu pandemic, there were people who thought that the flu was caused by long distance radio waves“.
“Someone put two invisible things together: a virus and radio waves. Most don’t understand either of the two, so if you link them, (the theory) can strain.”
Thus, long-distance waves and 5G technology become “a White that can be attacked or blamed “, adds the expert.
Regarding the exaggeration theory of the lethality of the virus, its role is more obvious.
The appeal is that “daily life should not be affected as it is now. Give an excuse to disregard restrictions recommended and continue as if nothing happened, “says Douglas.
“It makes you feel better,” Lewandowsky adds. “If you can dismiss a threat, your life is much easier, you have nothing to worry about and you are not afraid of anything. ”
All these theories have one element in common: a suspicion deep on everything that is official (they can be international organizations, governments, recognized media, etc.).
“There is nothing that conspiracy theorists believe free from corruption. What changes (in these theories) is how they are manifested,” says the expert.
Although it is not the responsibility of governments, Lewandowsky believes that “the more ambiguous and confusing the official message, the more ground the entrepreneurs of conspiracy theories gain to sell their message.”
How to limit your impact
When it comes to reducing its impact, the media has a complex role to play.
“I believe that, with few exceptions, the media in general have done a very reasonable job reporting on COVID,” says the researcher from the University of Bristol.
In his opinion, ignoring conspiracy theories is not an option, because that contributes to their flourishing, but “taking them seriously also undermines public discourse, because there is evidence that people who are exposed to them, even if they do not believe them, lose. trust in government, bureaucracies or society. ”
What can be done is to resort to the call “inoculation”, which consists of alerting people in advance that given the situation, conspiracy theories will arise and that all of them are characterized by the same flaws.
“There is evidence that this works“says Lewandowsky.
The expert clarifies that although the figures revealed by the survey are high, the hard-line defenders of conspiracy theories are not so many.
“The numbers are high, but of all these people who seem to bet on these theories, many do not believe in them so vehemently, they only convince themselves to be able to sleep at night. If you ask them to articulate what they think, their argument falls to them. It is only a protective shield “
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