Daniel Roberts had not been vaccinated since he was six years old. His parents taught him that vaccines were dangerous and when the coronavirus arrived, they argued that it was an invention. The real threat, they assured him, was the vaccine.
So when this 29-year-old from Tennessee got vaccinated against COVID-19 at a Walmart store last month, it was truly a personal milestone. A break with the past.
“Five hundred thousand people died in this country. It’s not an invention, “said Roberts, speaking of the conspiracy theories that many of his family and friends believe. “I don’t know why I don’t believe in all those things. I guess I preferred to believe the facts.
As the world tries to contain COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts analyze why the pandemic generated so many conspiracy theories that people refuse to wear masks, keep their distance and get vaccinated.
They note a relationship between the belief in falsehoods about COVID-19 and the dependence on social networks as an information source.
And they are coming to the conclusion that conspiracy theories make people feel more in control of a situation that scares them.
“We have to learn from what has happened, make sure we can prevent it from happening again,” said former US Secretary of Health Richard Carmona, who served under George W. Bush Jr. “The masks have become a symbol of your political party. People say vaccines are useless. The average person is confused. Who do you believe?
In the United States, one in four people believe the pandemic was created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center study from June last year. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety.
False claims are creating more and more real problems.
In January, anti-vaccine activists forced the closure of the vaccination center at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles for a day. In Europe, dozens of towers that carry cell phone signals were burned by the false claim that 5G technology signals were infecting people. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed doses of COVID vaccines, medical personnel were attacked and hundreds of people died after ingesting toxins presented as a cure, all due to falsehoods about COVID-19.
The most popular conspiracy theories help explain complex events, in which it is difficult to accept the truth, according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Reboot Foundation in Paris, which researches and promotes critical thinking in the age of the internet.
These theories generally proliferate after major events, such as the moon landing, the attacks of September 11, 2001, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when many people refused to accept that a single disturbed individual could have killed a president.
“People need big explanations for big problems, big events,” said John Cook, a cognitive scientist and conspiracy theorist at Monash University in Australia. “Simple explanations – such as that bats spread the virus – are not satisfactory on a psychological level.”
The need for something bigger is such, Cook said, that people often believe contradictory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for example, initially thought that COVID-19 was linked to the phone towers, only to later decide it was all a sham. The only explanations they did not take into account were those that came from medical experts.
Mistrust of science, institutions, and traditional news sources often sparks conspiracy theories and belief in pseudosciences.
Distrust is encouraged by leaders like Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the virus and undermined experts in his own government.
An analysis by Cornell University researchers found that Trump was the main propagator of false claims about COVID-19. Other studies agree that conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and spread misinformation about the virus.
Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have been criticized for allowing the dissemination of false information. They have been more determined to contain misinformation about COVID-19, suggesting that they could do more to prevent misinformation around other issues, according to Cook.
“The solution to all of this is education,” said Bouygues. “COVID showed us how dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories can be.”