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Conspiracy Theory in The Time of COVID

by Karen Douglas
May 17, 2020

This interview with Karen Douglas, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent, was conducted and condensed by franknews. Douglas has studied the psychology of conspiracy theories for over 10 years.

frank | When does a theory become a conspiracy theory? 

Karen Douglas | “Conspiracy theories” are attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors. Whilst people might have "theories" about what might have happened in important circumstances, it becomes a "conspiracy theory" when a powerful group is accused of acting in secret to achieve some kind of sinister goal. 

Are conspiracy theories especially likely to take hold during disasters and tragedies?

Psychological research suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories to satisfy unmet psychological needs such as the need for knowledge and certainty (epistemic), the need for control and autonomy (existential), and the need for self-esteem (social). Conspiracy theories also become more popular in times of crisis. During this particular time of crisis, people are experiencing a lot of confusion, feelings of powerlessness and insecurity. It is reasonable that they are looking to conspiracy theories to help them cope with these feelings

What risks come with the spread of conspiracy?

Much of the time, conspiracy theories are perfectly harmless. However, when conspiracy theories influence people's opinions on important social matters and can influence their behaviour, then they can become quite dangerous. For example, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are associated with increased vaccine hesitancy. Also, it is likely that conspiracy theories about COVID-19 not being real might mean that people don't take the correct precautions to stop it from spreading so that they can keep themselves and others safe. Therefore, it is important to be cautious about conspiracy theories.

There is an us vs them element to these theories – does this social dynamic feed into the proliferation and the shape of the theories? 

Many conspiracy theories are about intergroup dynamics like this. People are blaming "others" for things that are happening and this, in some way, can help people feel good about themselves and helps to satisfy the social need I spoke about earlier. However, these types of conspiracy theories can also be harmful. There is evidence that believing in conspiracy theories about particular groups is associated with prejudice towards those groups. Being exposed to conspiracy theories about groups also increases prejudice against those groups (and other, unrelated groups sometimes).

How do conspiracies flourish with the media dynamic we live in? 

There is no doubt that modern communication technology has made it easier to consume and spread conspiracy theories more than ever. However, the relationship between technology and conspiracy theories is not that straightforward and something that I have written extensively about. 

It seems the line between fake news, conspiracy theories, and advice from world leaders is incredibly blurred – fueled by distrust in experts or science. Do you think that's true? Is it possible to reset?

I certainly hope so. I also think that large technology companies are much more aware now of the impact of conspiracy theories and fake news on people's attitudes and behaviours. So they are taking the time to make sure that this information doesn't appear on their platforms. This has happened in direct response to all of the misinformation about COVID-19, and to me this is very promising.

Several conspiracies have come out of this crisis. Which one is most interesting to you? What does it say about larger social trends? 

There are many conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and I think it is interesting and important to understand all of them because they are all likely to have consequences.

How long have conspiracy theories been used as political tools — particularly by the two main parties in the U.S.? 

Probably as long as anyone can remember. Conspiracy theories have always been with us. Whilst we are seeing a rapid change in the way we share and communicate information, I think that conspiracy theories have always been appealing both as information and a way to influence people. 

What’s the best way to combat conspiracy & push straightforward factual information?

This is rather difficult. Once conspiracy theories have taken root, it is difficult to get people to believe otherwise. A promising approach though might be 'inoculation' – that is, giving people the factual information before they come across the conspiracy theories. This can be effective even when people might already have pre-formed opinions on topics (e.g., such as vaccination).