Why COVID-19 is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories

13 May 2020 | 2 mins

Scientists from UWA, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge and George Mason University have shed light on how to spot conspiracy theories arising from COVID-19.

Associate Professor Ullrich Ecker from our School of Psychological Science said the pandemic was a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

“When people suffer a loss of control or feel threatened, they become more vulnerable to believing conspiracy theories,” Professor Ecker said.

“What’s more, people have become more willing to express and endorse even highly inaccurate and illogical theories, especially in the US.

“This is due in part to social media amplifying fringe views, but also because social norms are making it more acceptable, especially when global leaders get away with open lies and are seen to be supporting fringe views.”

Dr Ecker said there were several tell-tale traits of conspiratorial thinking, outlined in a guide the scientists have published through the George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication.

“Conspiracy theorists show extreme suspicion, which leads them to reinterpret random events as being caused by the conspiracy,” he said.

“Take the rollout of 5G, which is, of course, unrelated to, but happened to coincide with, the emergence of COVID-19.

“Conspiracy theorists also often make contradictory claims. One day it’s 5G, the next day it’s a bioweapon made in a Wuhan lab.”

Dr Ecker said correcting conspiracy theories was problematic.

“Their self-sealing nature makes them irrefutable almost by definition – if you present evidence against a conspiracy you could be portrayed as part of the conspiracy,” he said.

“The best strategy is really to expose the flaws in conspiratorial thinking and to understand the tell-tale traits to prevent people being misled.”

Media references

Associate Professor Ullrich Ecker

UWA School of Psychological Science

0458 220 072

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