Why people tend to believe coronavirus conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories about coronavirus have exploded across the internet — be it 5G cell technology, some mysterious lab, or Bill Gates himself that's purportedly behind the virus. As Business Insider reports, in fact, a recent study by Pew Research Center suggests that 29% of Americans believe the virus was made in a lab, though scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests it's a case of animal transfer.
Psychologists have an explanation for why people are turning to conspiracy theories amid the coronavirus pandemic. Conspiracy theories thrive in a crisis and are typically brought about by fear and anxiety, according to a 2019 review of the research literature by Andreas Goreis and Martin Voracek, both psychologists at the University of Vienna in Austria. When people are scared and feel a lack of control over situations, conspiracy theories come from the desire to make sense of those situations, according to the paper published in Frontiers in Psychology.
In a sense, conspiracy theories are psychologically comforting. As a 2017 paper by a trio of University of Kent psychologists detailed, conspiracy theories seem to provide an explanation that allows people to preserve their own beliefs in uncertain times. One of the authors, Karen Douglas, told Business Insider about why people are turning to conspiracy theories amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For one, people tend to turn to them when they feel powerless. "This is a big event that requires big explanations," Douglas said. "In a time of great confusion, it is not surprising that people want answers, if that sometimes means connecting dots incorrectly."
Some theories can be attributed in part to fear of new technology, like the claim that new 5G technology is causing or accelerating the spread of the novel coronavirus. Dr. John Grohol, Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central, said in a recent article that people who feel alienated from modern society, which is more complex and difficult to navigate in the face of new technology, are more likely to turn to conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories about 5G technology date back to before the spread of the novel coronavirus. Yet 5G — short for fifth generation of wireless communication technology — is a catch-all term for suite technology making wireless devices faster and more connected. For the average consumer, it just means better connection speeds for mobile devices.
Conspiracy theories suggesting that since 5G is more powerful than previous mobile internet types, it must also be dangerous, especially to people's immune systems, began to circulate in 2019. As the coronavirus began to spread, the 5G conspiracy theory shifted. Conspiracy theorists now believe the launch of 5G technology exacerbated the pandemic.
Full Fact, a UK-based fact-checking organization, debunked these rumors, but throughout the month of April, arsonists burned 50 phone masts across the UK, where the 5G technology has already been released.
Mobile UK, an organization that represents Britain's four mobile operators, confirmed to Business Insider that it estimates the attacks are linked to the conspiracy theory.
People with traditional values are more likely to believe the coronavirus was created in a lab or link it to Bill Gates. According to Full Fact, another conspiracy theory about 5G technology and the coronavirus was linked to Bill Gates in a now-deleted Facebook post that circled the site in March.
The post claimed that the coronavirus was fake disease used to disguise 5G-related damages and that Gates created it to control the world. New York Times analysis about conspiracy theories blaming Gates for the coronavirus linked them to right-wing and anti-vaccination figures.
Grohol, the Psych Central editor, argued that "groups whose identity is tied up in traditional societal values are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories."
An April survey by Pew Research suggests that another coronavirus conspiracy theory, which claims that the coronavirus was created by people in a lab, is more likely to be believed by conservative Republicans. Nearly a third of sampled Americans said they believed this theory. Existential fears and the inconvenience of social distancing drive conspiracy theories that say the virus is being overblown.
Other coronavirus conspiracy theories can be attributed to existential fears and the inconvenience of social distancing, like the theory the pandemic is being overplayed, Douglas told Vox. "Downplaying the virus is a way to attempt to deal with the immediate existential threat, but it also serves the purpose of allowing individuals to carry on as normal," Douglas explained. "A lot of the behaviors that people need to observe to manage the spread of the virus are unpleasant, and denying the problem also means that people can avoid these actions."