Covid-19 and Conspiracy Theories: Where Have They Come From?
Since the outbreak of Coronavirus at the beginning of 2020, the internet has been rife with various conspiracy theories about its origin and even whether it truly exists.
But where have these conspiracy theories come from? And how have they managed to seep into the mainstream so easily?
The proliferation of conspiracy theories
Before delving into the details of the multiple conspiracy theories which have reared their head during the pandemic, it is first essential we understand both why and how these false-truths are created, spread, and digested by large swathes of the general public.
According to a key study regarding the psychology of conspiracy theories, these beliefs are largely created and fuelled by an innate desire to make sense of our environment. In this way, conspiracy theories appear to solve complex ideas and happenings such as the moon-landing and global warming with easily believable stories. As a result, these false narratives play an essential cognitive role in explaining the world we live in.
"These false narratives play an essential cognitive role in explaining the world we live in."
Although this may appear relatively harmless, several factors have led to a drastic increase in the quantity of stories and subsequent believers of conspiracy theories.
1. Firstly, it has been suggested that in times of great stress and uncertainty the human brain becomes less able to systematically weigh up information as effectively as usual. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that, in the uncertain climate of the pandemic, conspiracy theories are veering ever closer into mainstream thought.
2. Secondly, the role of social media in the formation and dissemination of conspiracy theories is significant. Due to the way social media platforms’ algorithms curate our news feeds based on what we interact most with, users are automatically and systematically split up into groups of likeminded people with similar interests and beliefs. These online communities are otherwise known as echo chambers.
Research shows that in these echo chambers, people’s beliefs, truthful or not, are repeated and reinforced, leading to the perpetuation of uncontested information. This explains why certain groups such as the far-right so strongly claim that the mainstream media is fake – the information they are seeing and interacting with online simply does not represent what is being officially announced on primary news channels.
3. Finally, the recent surge in misinformation, disinformation and foreign influence operations has only exacerbated the spread of false information, but with the corruptive and hostile intent to sow confusion and distrust amongst foreign populations.
"To disregard conspiracy theories as mere nonsense only serves to underestimate the power, influence and potential harm that they can bring about."
Therefore, to disregard conspiracy theories as mere nonsense only serves to underestimate the power, influence and potential harm that they can bring about. Let’s take the Covid-related conspiracy of the coronavirus pandemic being a ‘cover-up’. In the face of the very real threat of the pandemic, the implications of people believing that coronavirus does not exist could be disastrous for public health.
In the next section you can read about some of the principal coronavirus conspiracy theories, their origins, and their very real consequences.
Conspiracy theories in the pandemic
"The Coronavirus was planned"
A popular conspiracy theory circulating at the moment is the idea that the coronavirus pandemic was somehow planned and deliberately instigated by an organisation or nation state. This arguably began due to the fact that the word coronavirus already appeared on the labels of multiple cleaning products and the existence of previous vaccines against coronaviruses - which include the common cold. As a result, some have taken this as evidence that manufacturers have been warned about the pandemic and that a cure for Covid-19 already exists. These falsehoods have then been exacerbated by Donald Trump who purported that China is responsible for the deliberate spread of coronavirus – the coincidental proximity between the Wuhan wet market and the Institute of Virology laboratory only serving to further fuel the fire.
In response to these claims, it has been clarified by infectious disease researchers that the genetic sequence of the virus proves that it naturally evolved in animals, specifically bats and/or pangolins.
"Miracle cure: Hydroxychoroquine"
A large amount of the coronavirus conspiracies have involved potential cures to the virus. Many supposed ‘miracle cures’ have been spreading around the internet such as the malaria drug Hydroxychloroquine. A scientific research paper went viral in March 2020 after claiming that the malaria drug was an effective cure to Covid-19. Once again, Donald Trump promoted this theory at press conferences, falsely stating that it had been officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the journal’s publisher The Lancet have since taken down the paper in the face of severe criticism surrounding the paper’s scientific inconsistencies.
Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in prescriptions for the malaria drug which is presumably due to the idea that is an effective treatment against Covid-19. The consequences of this falsehood are significant – with hospitals having to treat patients for poisoning and one man losing his life. In response, the FDA had to release a statement warning the public against the use of hydroxychloroquine.
"Miracle cure: UV light + bleach"
Another miracle cure conspiracy centres around the use of UV light as a way to clean the surface of the body of coronavirus. This idea was originated by Trump who stated that “[hitting] the body with ultraviolet or just a very powerful light” serves to rid the body of Covid-19. In addition, he advocated for drinking disinfectants such as bleach as a further treatment. What followed was a flurry of Facebook pages which sold UV ‘sanitiser’ lights and a diluted form of bleach called Medical Mineral Solution purporting to eradicate coronavirus.
In response to these ridiculous claims, the World Health Organisation released information warning people against such methods of coronavirus treatment.
"The Covid vaccine is used to track and control us"
Since the news broke that several vaccines have been created in the fight against coronavirus, there has been an influx of false stories surrounding the effects of these new drugs. The primary conspiracy is that the new vaccine is being used by the government as a way to track and control the population. In fact, according to one study, a significant 14% of the UK population believe that this is the reason behind the mass vaccination programme.
Although this concern regarding the Covid-19 vaccine has been particularly widespread of late, the fear surrounding the pandemic’s required vaccinations can be seen as a symptom of a larger conspiracy ‘movement’ against vaccinations in general – otherwise known as anti-vaxxing. The anti-vaxxer ‘movement’ is hardly a new phenomenon, tracing back as early as the 1800s when a vaccine for smallpox was issued. However, whereas previous concerns have related to religious beliefs or tenuous medical fears, the current fears surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine seems to relate to politically motivated fears and prejudices that seem to reflect the current climate of distrust in our traditional institutions.
The fight for truth continues
Given the previously mentioned prevalence of coronavirus conspiracies and their potentially life-threatening consequences, it is becoming more important than ever to try to remain correctly informed through appropriate means – not just through stories that you read online.
Therefore, as a starting point in the fight for truth against falsehoods, we must make sure we take our information on the pandemic from trustworthy sources. That means a variety of mainstream media outlets, or for more specific information, reputable scientific sites such as Science Mag or Science News.