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27 July 2021

Why Covid-19 conspiracy theories are flourishing

Those drawn to Covid conspiracy theories are not necessarily stupid – they’re scared and desperate to feel in control.

By James Bloodworth

The rabble of cranks and conspiracy theorists that descended on central London over the weekend displayed what Hannah Arendt once called a “conspicuous distain of the whole texture of reality”. This disdain for reality was most obvious in the precise date chosen for what was billed as an “anti-lockdown” protest: it took place on the first weekend of the year without Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.

But the protests were about more than lockdown, as could be discerned from a roster of speakers. They included several notorious conspiracy theorists, such as David Icke, Piers Corbyn and the “anti-vaxxer” Kate Shemirani, a former nurse. The low point of Saturday’s London rally came when Shemirani, who was struck off earlier this year for spreading misinformation about Covid vaccines, compared NHS nurses to the Nuremberg defendants.

Arendt wrote the above line in The Origins of Totalitarianism, her magnum opus on the murderous political movements of the 20th century. In a preface to the first edition of the book, written at the height of the Cold War in 1950, Arendt wrote of those [the masses] “for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives”.

This feeling of powerlessness sometimes led individuals to identify with leaders who displayed the opposite emotion: unshakeable conviction. Throwing one’s lot in with an all-encompassing “worldview” – be it communism or its ostensible ideological foe, fascism – freed individuals from having to swim amidst the discombobulating “chaos of opinions” that characterised plural and democratic society.

One might think that contemporary conspiracy theories, with their emphasis on intuitive rather than rational thinking, originate from a different place altogether. Indeed, anyone who has ever argued with a conspiracy theorist will probably see their arguments as resembling the “chaos of opinions”: strongly held but speculative bullshit.

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[See also: Are just 12 people responsible for spreading more than half of all Covid-19 vaccine disinformation?]

Yet there are arguably similarities between the underlying psychology of those recruited as foot soldiers to totalitarian movements of the 20th century and those drawn to the conspiracy theories of today.

It has been argued that we are again living in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Nearly one in five Americans believe in the QAnon conspiracy – the idea that governments are controlled by Satan-worshipping paedophiles. Furthermore, almost half (47 per cent) of Donald Trump voters believed in 2018 that man-made global warming is a hoax. In the UK in 2018, 47 percent of Leave voters thought the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants live in the UK.

The single best predictor of belief in one conspiracy theory is belief in another conspiracy theory: sometimes called “crank magnetism”, one form of quackery tends to attract another like a magnet.

This fits with assumptions we often make about a person’s level of education when they subscribe to conspiracy theories. When people march with placards calling Covid a hoax and linking the virus to 5G, we tend dismiss them as idiots, or cite the Dunning-Kruger effect: the idea that stupid people don’t know they are stupid, and as such they walk around with delusions of intellectual grandeur.

Some research seems to support this. A highly educated person is less likely to subscribe to one or more conspiracy theories, whereas the less educated a person, the more likely they are to attribute agency and intentionality where neither exist – a key tenet of conspiracy theories.

The internet, too, is frequently blamed for the prevalence of conspiracy theories, yet they have been around since long before the web and social media. Conspiracy theories were arguably even more widespread before widespread internet use: in 1997, almost three-quarters (71 per cent) of Americans believed the government was hiding information about UFOs.   

It is therefore worth considering a third factor that may be fuelling conspiracy theories: fear and unpredictability. As a recent paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology puts it: “The negative emotions that constitute the psychological origins of belief in conspiracy theories include anxiety, uncertainty, or the feeling that one lacks control.”

That conspiracy theories may ease feelings of uncertainty has been strikingly apparent during Covid. It may also explain why the political right, particularly in its libertarian guise, has appeared to be more susceptible to Covid conspiracy theories than the left.

Indeed, it is probably no coincidence that many prominent online “Covid sceptics” have one foot in the “self-help” genre, which is built on the bootstrap mentality: the notion that failure is a personal choice. It is a genre perhaps best encapsulated by the simplistic bromide which says “circumstances do not make a man, they reveal him”.

[See also: Can Covid-19 conspiracy theorists be reformed?]

The pandemic has revealed such glib prognostications to be hollow. The freedom not to breathe in droplets of a deadly virus depends very much on the exercise of restraint by others. And once you concede that larger forces than individual willpower may be responsible for a person’s ultimate predicament, such “libertarian” beliefs ought to slip away. There is such a thing as society, after all. As Leon Trotsky might have said, you may not care about Covid-19, but it cares about you.

Conspiracy theories, by contrast, allow those who hold on to them to sidestep such chastening realisations. Thus the pandemic is attributed to “the covert activities of hostile conspiracies”, to quote a recent paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Strolling through the streets of central London during the weekend protests, I was reminded of something else that Trotsky wrote, on this occasion about the rise of National Socialism. The Nazis picked up recruits in a world of tumultuous economic and political uncertainty, a world of stark contrasts where “a hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcism… What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”.

The charlatans who today use public platforms to spread dangerous Covid conspiracy theories are not Nazis (though the far-right has reportedly been using Covid conspiracy theories to lure the young), yet they evoke a similar blend of “darkness, ignorance and savagery”.

As for their followers who packed Trafalgar Square on Saturday, many may be credulous or ignorant dupes. But I would bet that a larger number are simply unable to cope with “the feeling that one lacks control”. They are not evil, they are stricken with fear.