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Why are we so quick to believe conspiracy theories? The impact of the pandemic on our perception of reality

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The danger of a conspiracy theory is that trying to explain it could be conspiratorial in itself – take everything I say with a pinch of salt. If someone proposed two facts to you “COVID-19 is a tool of population control” and “COVID-19 is a lab-leak”, which one are you more inclined to believe? While it is hard to prove either of these statements to be true or false, the one with more psychological impact, I’d like to believe, is the former. That is the intrinsic value of a conspiracy theory, whereby the psychological shock clouds our rational cognitive judgment, and makes it more challenging to make logic-based conclusions. While there is no hard evidence that conspiracy theories are circulating more widely today than ever before, over the past three years it has certainly seemed like the average citizen has bought into them more and more. A Pew Research survey on governmental policies in 2021 showed that a quarter of the US population believe that the mainstream media is lying to them about COVID-19. 

We have all seen these theories, starting with social media and stretching to an acquaintance attempting to prompt a polemic to discuss. These jaw-dropping revelations are not immediately forgotten, and it seems like one painful symptom of the virus is the proliferation of conspiracy theories online. It is important to get one thing straight: conspiracy theories are distinct from other forms of misinformation or fake news. They are simply a particular way in which we digest difficult, sometimes complex, or even disturbing events. I would rather believe that the world was flat than think that I am standing upside down (not quite). But the general idea is that. Those stories – hard to believe to be fortuitous- such as Princess Diana’s death, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, the moon landing and many more, encourage people to compartmentalise and rationalise. We must find an answer to everything! 

As 2021 comes to an end, new conspiracies seem to keep coming up. Perhaps the most prominent has been Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the presidential election, despite zero evidence in any state to support his claim. But how did we get to a place where previously science-minded and logic loving theorists can find conspiracies with ease and once-fringe paranoia is now embedded? How did factless theories about health, history, science and world leadership get so popular? 

Socio-political turbulence tends to generate panic. The ongoing pandemic, increasing political polarization, and distrust in politicians have precipitated widespread psychological uncertainty, and by corollary, insecurity. This triggers a fight or flight response, where coming to terms with current events would be the same as admitting how bad the state of the world is right now. Conspiracy theories provide people with a feeling of control and security. It calms their fear of the unknown when face to face with troubling information. “At least it can be explained” is the general mindset. It is not only a way to deny reality but also a way to work on the sense of fragility, an escape for those who are not used to feeling exposed. 

Moreover, as stated before, the modern misinformation crisis allows conspiracies to spiral into movements. The most prominent today being QAnon. They have a huge presence in American society, and have gone as far as rioting at the Capitol earlier this year. At its heart, QAnon is a theory that states that Donald Trump is waging a “secret” war against elite Satan-worshiping peadophiles in government, business and media. The QAnon theory community drive hashtags and co-ordinate abuse of perceived enemies – the politicians, celebrities and journalists who they believe are covering up for paedophiles. But when a word was mouthed for the “social cancellation” of Michael Jackson as a response to a Twitter thread, their rebuttal was that he is an American cultural idol. These inconsistencies within the irrational thinking of mobs that drive these theories make it not just a threatening message online. Twitter had to previously take action against QAnon following potential “offline harm”. 

Conspiracy theories aren’t easy to stop either. The first step would arguably be empathy for the believers. This is the point of free speech that humanity has been fighting for so long. The tendency of the most rational-minded people when confronted with an ‘absurd’ theory that seems illogical to them is to deploy a combination of dismissiveness, yelling, fact-checking and application of logic. If all fails, they simply resort to shunning the opposition outright. But what simply happens, following simple human principles is that the believer’s defence mechanisms kick in, causing them to double down on their belief system. While this is not an ideal outcome, one would hope that when one is left to their own devices, they simply talk themselves out of the theory altogether. They eventually “wake up” from a fantasy world, open their eyes to the real world and try to find factual solutions to what has been keeping them up at night. 

To conclude, if one believes that the COVID-19 vaccine is actually a chip that is used to track humanity, and this reasoning disincentivizes you from getting the vaccine, that is when it becomes a global issue. The theory of one household becomes a social movement.

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