Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet made conspiracy theories easier to spread. Make no mistake though, this lane was being driven in long before the internet became the main information superhighway. Conspiracy theories have multiple components to them, but at a high level they are people trying to make sense of a situation that feels extreme and/or out of their control. Conspiracy theories often lend a sense of comfort, but they are dangerous for public health and have made an already precarious situation in this pandemic worse.
Conspiracy theories lack evidence and are dangerous because of it. While science has been used as an excuse for atrocities committed around the world, there is a distinct difference between the reality of those atrocities and conspiracy theories. That difference is evidence. Verifiable, confirmable evidence. Without evidence, all claims seem equal. If all claims seem equal, then people will fall back on whatever feels most true. Evidence is what helps us determine fact from fiction.
Let’s walk through an example of a recent conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates. Have you heard the one about how Bill Gates will make a gazillion dollars by causing a global pandemic and withholding the vaccine all so the Gates Foundation can track you by microchip? Let’s break down the assumptions that this conspiracy theory makes because there are quite a few. The first assumption is that the virus was created by humans. There’s no evidence for that.1 The second assumption is that the Gates Foundation has a vaccine. There’s no evidence for that either.2 The third assumption is that the Gates Foundation is planning to track people by implanting them with microchips. There’s also no evidence for that.3 All three underlying assumptions have no evidence to back them up. And yet despite that, the rumors and misinformation continue to fly.
While the example involving Bill Gates hasn’t amounted to anything tangible beyond the walls of the internet, there are other conspiracy theories that have. A conspiracy theory led an armed man to go into a pizzeria in Washington D.C. and refuse to leave until he was satisfied with his “investigation.”4 A conspiracy theory led to cell phone towers being set on fire.5 The intersection of conspiratorial thinking and pseudoscience has given us the anti-vaccination movement, which is responsible for the resurgence of measles in the U.S.6 These examples are merely a few, but I could go on and on.
Not taking conspiracy theories seriously dismisses the very real threats that they pose to our society. Additionally, when a society experiences hardship, say, like a pandemic, they exacerbate that hardship. They make it nearly impossible to limit the casualties of that hardship to bare minimum. In fact, they increase what that “bare minimum” is. They inspire people to act in ways that are harmful to others. For example, not being vaccinated or not vaccinating children. Or setting something on fire. Or not wearing a mask in public spaces.
What you can do
Familiarize yourself with the hallmarks of conspiracy theories. There are a lot of free resources to help guide you through the swamp of internet, and non-internet, claims. Here’s a list to get you started:
- Looking through this checklist by Life Hacker7
- Read this article from The Conversation8
- Read The Conspiracy Theory Handbook9 (it’s 12 pages)
- Listen to this podcast on how to spot conspiracy theories from The Conversation10
- Anderson, K.G., Rambaut, A., Lipskin, W.I., Holmes, E.C., Garry, R.F. (2020). The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine, 26, 450-452. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-020-0820-9
- The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Optimist. A COVID-19 vaccine might be ready within 19 month. But what happens then? https://www.gatesfoundation.org/TheOptimist/Articles/coronavirus-vaccine-development-gavi
- USA Today. Fact check: Bill Gates is not planning to microchip the world through a COVID-19 vaccine. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/06/12/fact-check-bill-gates-isnt-planning-implant-microchips-via-vaccines/3171405001/
- National Public Radio. ‘Pizzagate’ Gunman Sentences to 4 Years in Prison. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/22/533941689/pizzagate-gunman-sentenced-to-4-years-in-prison
- The Deep Conspiracy Roots of Europe’s Strange Wave of Cell-Tower Fires. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/18/deep-conspiracy-roots-europe-wave-cell-tower-fires-264997
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Media Releases. CDC Media Statement: Measles case in the U.S. are highest since measles was eliminated in 2000. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/s0424-highest-measles-cases-since-elimination.html
- How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory. https://vitals.lifehacker.com/how-to-spot-a-conspiracy-theory-1843463080
- The Conversation. How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory When You See One. https://vitals.lifehacker.com/how-to-spot-a-conspiracy-theory-1843463080
- The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook. March 2020. https://www.climatechangecommunication.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/ConspiracyTheoryHandbook.pdf
- The Conversation. How to Spot a Conspiracy Theory—Expert Guide to Conspiracy Theories Part One. https://theconversation.com/how-to-spot-a-conspiracy-theory-expert-guide-to-conspiracy-theories-part-one-133802