The viral nature of COVID-19 conspiracy theories
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
The age of internet and government distrust provides the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy
A significant number of Americans believe the moon landing was a government hoax. ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ is now an internet meme. And did you hear the one about how lasers and exploding smart meters were used to start the most recent Australian bushfires to make way for a new train network?
In recent months, just as the death toll from COVID-19 has increased, so too have theories around the origins of the virus. Many of these theories come from the internet's murky corners, however as the world has gone into lockdown, some have found their way into the mainstream and risk endangering public health. As one coronavirus denier tells us, it’s hard to ascertain fact from fiction.
“I don’t trust any sources as everyone lies and fabricates stories.” – Jane*
Some theories claim that COVID-19 is a population-control scheme or a top-secret spy operation gone wrong. Others believe it is an elaborate hoax or point to a cash grab by big pharmaceutical companies. There are those that claim consuming silver particles or drinking water with lemon prevents or cures you of the virus. Perhaps the most pervasive theory, however, is that 5G wireless technology somehow plays a role in the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Gaining traction after an interview with an obscure Belgian doctor, the conspiracy theory that 5G is somehow linked to the coronavirus pandemic has spread like no other. The claim that 5G's radio waves damage the body has been denounced by radiation and medical experts, but it continues to gathered momentum in Australia – Facebook group Stop5G Australia has more than 46,000 members. More recently, the idea that the network's rollout caused coronavirus, or that it "lowers the immune system" so the virus can enter the body, has gained traction.
There is a great deal of scientific research into why people might be susceptible to conspiracy theories. Jane has doubts about the origin of COVID- 19 that stem from feelings of distrust. “No I do not trust the government but they are in contol [sic] and everyone is sheep and follows what they are being told,” she says.
Lantian et al. (2017) summarise the characteristics associated with a person who is likely to believe in them:
… personality traits such as openness to experience, distrust, low agreeability, and Machiavellianism are associated with conspiracy belief.
Compounding this is that when people suffer loss of control or feel threatened, it makes them more vulnerable to believing conspiracies.
“I feel trapped!” Jane says. “I dont [sic] have an explanation as I dont [sic] know what's really going on under the current situation. I dont [sic] trust the government one little bit.”
Clearly, the high-anxiety narrative means that pandemics are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories. At the same time, the Internet has amplified the abilities of these like-minded people to come together to share and expand on their conspiracy theories – Australian anti-5G Facebook groups have added hundreds of new members in recent weeks.
Conspiracy theories aren't going away, for as long as there are people who have a need to believe in them, they will continue to expand and thrive. With a single tweet able to initiate a cascade of misinformation, and distrust of government increasing, will they become more prevalent in the internet age?
*not her real name