The boom in coronavirus conspiracy theories

The boom in coronavirus conspiracy theories

The Atlantic reports:

COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we have a global pandemic, a crashing economy, social isolation, and restrictive government policies: All of these can cause feelings of extreme anxiety, powerlessness, and stress, which in turn encourage conspiracy beliefs. For more than a month, an urban legend that the pandemic was predicted in an early-’80s Dean Koontz thriller has been circulating on social media. Meanwhile, QAnon believers are circulating the “mole children” theory, which holds that the virus is a ploy to arrest members of the satanic “deep state” (Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton) and to release their hostages (sex-slave children) from underneath Central Park. (Tom Hanks’s appearance on Saturday Night Live should have quelled speculation that he had been arrested for child molestation, but—in typical conspiratorial fashion—believers simply explained the irregularity away, claiming that Hanks’s monologue was a deepfake.)

But if the coronavirus pandemic is fertile ground for conspiracism, it’s also an opportunity—a rare chance for social scientists to examine just how many Americans will adopt conspiracy theories given the right set of circumstances. While laboratory experiments and public-opinion surveys are useful for understanding the basic structure of conspiracy beliefs, they can’t simulate real-world catastrophes of the kind that make conspiracy theories appealing to some people. It’s wise to step back and use these unique circumstances to consider what conspiracy theories can tell us about the media, the government, and ourselves. It turns out they can tell us a lot.

Mainstream coronavirus conspiracy theories come in two varieties: those that doubt the virus’s severity and those that suggest it might be a bioweapon. The former was endorsed by President Trump, who, early in the pandemic, referred to the virus as the Democrats’ “new hoax.” Even though he has taken the virus more seriously since mid-March, he has yet to explicitly condemn the idea that the threat of the virus has been exaggerated, or to encourage like-minded partisans in government and media to take it seriously. Indeed, conservative-media personalities continue to cast doubt on the reality of the pandemic, even as the death toll rises. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, suggested that our public-health officials are deep-state operatives and might not even be health experts. Some conservative commentators have pushed the theory that our hospitals aren’t actually treating any COVID-19 patients, going so far as to encourage people to stake out local hospitals and film the number of patients going in and out.

The second type of coronavirus conspiracy theory claims that the virus was intentionally disseminated by foreign powers, such as China or Russia, or by billionaire philanthropists such as George Soros and Bill Gates: Maybe China created or was working with this strain of coronavirus in a laboratory, and that the virus escaped by accident, or maybe Gates and the World Health Organization are at work on some nefarious plot to “control, and rule the world” with vaccines. A particularly disruptive version of this conspiracy theory connects the virus to 5G technology; it has driven believers to damage cell towers across Europe in recent weeks. [Continue reading…]

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