On the Persistence of Conspiracy Theories in America
Spreading alongside coronavirus has been a noxious mix of conspiracy theories. It’s an ugly phenomenon, but as American as apple pie.
Spreading alongside COVID-19 in the United States has been a viral stew of conspiracy theories resistant to all scientific clarifications and evidence. The misinformation not only stokes prejudice and fear in the population, it also disarms people of real ways to protect themselves from the widening impact of the coronavirus.
Conspiracy theories, including those about disease outbreaks, are not a new phenomenon in America. Indeed, conspiracism can thrive anywhere in the world in times of turmoil. The United States has a peculiarly fertile ground for viral rumors and distrust of officials, however, that allows conspiracy theories to sink deep roots and thrive.
Virus Conspiracy Theories: New Lyrics, Old Tunes
The conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus outbreak may be emergent with the pandemic, but they are also a familiar song for scientists who have worked in public health for years. The lies range from “government hoax” to “botched bioweapons program,” all eerily similar to the conspiracy theories blown about during earlier disease outbreaks.
One noxious rumor suggests COVID-19 was created in a high-level Chinese government laboratory located in Wuhan near the market where it was found to have first contacted humans. The conspiracy theory, promoted by the American extreme right with the effect of whipping up anti-Chinese prejudice, blames the Chinese state for developing the virus as a bioweapon.
Public health scientists have stridently countered the misinformation peddled about the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak. In a statement published in The Lancet February 19, 27 prominent scientists stated that studies of the SARS-CoV-2 strain from scientists in multiple countries “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife” and “Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus.”
Lies fly faster than the truth, though, and one reason why is that they offer a more categorical interpretation for a complex and confusing reality.
According to a study by the US State Department, some two million Twitter posts repeating the bioweapons claim had proliferated in the three-week period the virus began spreading beyond China.
Conspiracy theories flourish in times of uncertainty — something of which the “novel” strain of COVID-19 introduces a lot into an unprepared global population.
Gerald Keusch, a professor at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, told Vox:
“Conspiracy theories about manmade viruses are not new. We saw this with HIV — the rumor that the US made it and introduced it into Africa. But they are really dangerous kinds of things to get spread around.”
And as South African science communication researcher Marina Joubert commented to Al Jazeera:
“An outbreak like this has many uncertainties, and when people don’t have answers, and scientists are not able to give them all the answers and assurances they need, they are likely to start speculating.”
“Also, understandably, people are scared,” Joubert added, “and the images of people wearing masks and large cities that are deserted, cause further anxiety.”
Zika: A look back at another virus
Five years ago, in March 2015, Brazil notified the World Health Organization about a sickness and skin rash spreading to nearly 7,000 people. The illness was apparently mild, and no tests for the long-known Zika virus were conducted. Within the year, though, the tragic implications of Zika infection were making themselves felt in clusters of microcephaly cases in newborn babies.
In the United States, 40 percent of the population said they were “somewhat” or “highly” concerned about the Zika virus in 2016. At the same time, nearly one in five Americans believed in one or more conspiracy theory about Zika.
The most commonly believed one was that Zika was a byproduct of bioengineering — genetically modified mosquitoes were to blame. Others believed it was a terrorist attack; that it was being intentionally set loose by governments into the population to kill people; that it was a bioweapon intended to ruin the Summer Olympics in Brazil; that it was created by pharmaceutical companies to create demand for a profitable drug; and that it was caused by vaccines.
Scientists researching the Zika conspiracy theories were motivated by a concern that such “claims have the potential to become entrenched, increasing the likelihood people will refuse a Zika vaccine” were one to be developed.
This is a dangerous epidemiological problem. Researchers studying the Zika conspiracists observed:
“Just mere exposure to an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory can decrease a person’s intention to vaccinate, and anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs are difficult to correct.”
Conspiracism and knowledge resistance
Combating conspiracy theories requires science, but widespread distrust and underestimation of the importance of science to the functioning of our social infrastructure is a stubborn problem.
One part of the solution is more rigorous scientific education in public schools. Another is more accurate science communication in the media. Both are opposed by the powerful right-wing religious constituency within the American state. Add the “influencer” culture of the internet to this equation and conspiracy theories tend to crawl out of the swamp on their own mutated legs.
Some studies about the persistence of conspiratorial thinking approach the problem from a psychological or evolutionary standpoint. What appears to be simple ignorance may be better understood as “knowledge resistance” rooted, paradoxically, in “social rationality.”
This perspective begins with the understanding that humans are social animals who require a place in a group. While “objective knowledge-seeking can help strengthen group bonding,” when the group departs from knowledge-based information, the knowledge is often thrown out to retain group cohesion.
Group cohesion meant the survival of early humans, who had violent encounters with hostile groups. Conspiracy theories appear to exhibit the adaptive traits required for surviving these violent conditions, grounded in “the human capacity to make assumptions about the intentions of others.” At its root, this ability is the very same human characteristic that allows us to have empathy for others. It’s simply the dark side of the imaginative human mind.
Conspiracy theories offer false certainty
In uncertain times, conspiracy theories emerge to provide alternative answers to the “official line.” After terrorist attacks, the deaths of major public figures, or in the midst of a disaster, people look for a paradigm through which they can make sense of chaos. Some shadowy group is to blame. Ulterior political motives are at work.
It is not surprising that so many reject or distrust what the government tells them. Indeed, in the present situation, with the narrative coming from the administration of President Donald Trump shifting every day, who can blame someone for venturing out onto the internet in search of independent information?
The double-talk, vacillations, and outright lies from the White House have provided a rich manure for this season’s crop of conspiracy theories.
In fact, the present confusion is a reflection of the long history of conspiracies by the government. The existence of debunked conspiracy theories doesn’t negate the existence of actual conspiracies. The American government has made an industry out of lying to the people, manufacturing evidence that has driven the country into illegal wars, and protecting corporations that have wrought damage in our society.
In the early 1970s, a string of exposures rocked the US: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the spying and interference of the CIA into the Civil Rights movement and the sovereignty of other nations. As historian Jill Lepore notes, in that context it is “hardly surprising that in 1976, beginning with the publication of Bill Kaysing’s We Never Went to the Moon, a theory emerged that NASA had, in 1969, faked the Moon landing.”
“It is worth lingering over the relationship between the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the federal government, and in particular American presidents, had lied to the American people about Vietnam for more than a decade, and the Moon hoax, which suggested that NASA had secured the services of Stanley Kubrick to piece together fake footage. Every actual conspiracy sows fears of a million imaginary ones.”
Historian Kathryn S. Olmstead echoes this point in her study of American conspiratorial thinking. According to her research, the three main reasons Americans are susceptible to conspiracy theories all revolve around a history genuine government conspiracies or lies propagated by the government against its enemies.
The appeal of the conspiracy theory lies in its rejection of the official line in a way that eliminates nuance and presents a narrative as a secret insight others are too blind to see or too complacent to care.
It’s a “Wake up, Sheeple” approach to crisis that allows the believer a place among the elite with a clue. Problems are presented in an us-against-them fashion that turns disasters — even viruses of natural origin — into a battle of good and evil.
In a country as full of socially alienated people as the United States, these psychological fixes bear a potent appeal for those on the “fringe.”
Even for those in the middle, the need to be in-the-know when confusion reigns can override the requirements of science that a population must support, and be patient with, their public health experts who are working to solve major social disasters like the coronavirus pandemic.
Conspiracy theories offer certainty in an uncertain world. The danger is that such “certainty” is both the most uncertain of all and the most resistant to contrary evidence. Once it is ingested, the conspiracy theory worms its way into a brain and triggers confirmation bias behavior aimed at strengthening the argument rather than uncovering the truth.
Without all the puzzle pieces, we tend to fill in the gaps with our own imaginations. And Americans have plenty of sinister fodder in our imaginations to force into the gaps.