The pandemic conspiracy theories are out of control, y’all. I keep seeing more and more of them, and more and more people I thought were reasonably smart and discerning keep sharing them.
Seeing rationality fly out the window always freaks me out a bit. But I recently read something that helped me better understand why this phenomenon is happening.
According to a study by British researchers, people fall prey to conspiracy theories because they satisfy three psychological needs. (The researcher called them “desires.” For the folks we’re talking about in the time of crisis we’re in, I think they are closer to needs.)
1. A need for understanding and certainty
2. A need for control and security
3. A need to feel good about oneself
So yeah. Of course this pandemic has people entertaining all kinds of kooky, out-there conspiracies. Aside from the fact that we’ve suddenly found ourselves in a bizarre new reality, which makes bizarre ideas seem more palatable, a pandemic is perfectly tailored to conspiracy theory thinking.
The nature of a pandemic is living with constant uncertainty and learning as we go. There is no certainty whatsoever about any of it at this point, and our understanding literally changes by the day.
The pandemic is something we can’t control. And by threatening our health, upending our economic situation, and completely throwing off our sense of normal, it has disrupted our sense of security.
Then, to add insult to injury, our social norms are all jacked up because of social distancing, which messes with people’s sense of self.
And those things all feed one another. A lack of control makes us feel less safe. Uncertainty means there’s a lot of not knowing, which makes us feel insecure, which makes us feel bad.
Grand conspiracy theories still don’t make rational, logical sense (though folks will insist otherwise), but they DO satisfy those psychological needs.
It’s easier to believe there is certainty in the situation, even if that certainty is that there’s an evil plot afoot, than to accept than the reality that we are in the midst of a viral outbreak and economic collapse that we can’t currently see a way out of.
It’s easier to believe that the numbers are being skewed than to accept that mass death is happening and no one can stop it.
It’s easier to think that this is all a manipulative ploy to control people than it is to accept a reality where we have to make enormous sacrifices in order to save lives, and that there are no choices before us that don’t involve huge losses of one kind or another.
It’s easier to believe that someone nefarious is behind all of this—that it’s a #plandemic—because that means *someone* is controlling it, and maybe we *could* control it if we could just blow the lid off The Grand Plan.
It’s easier to think that the Chinese government or Bill Gates or the creators of 5G or the WHO or Dr. Fauci (seriously, people?) or some other boogeyman is pulling strings behind a curtain in some kind of master plan than to accept that there’s a virus no one can control running rampant through the world.
As much as it doesn’t make sense, for some people, conspiracy thinking is safer and more comfortable emotionally and psychologically than our current reality is.
It reminds me a bit of when that toddler was killed by an alligator at Disney World and people quickly started assigning blame. It was Disney’s fault! It was the parents’ fault! Really, it was a freak accident that was no one’s fault, but some people simply can’t accept that reality. Accepting that would mean it could just as easily have happened to them or their own children, and that’s too hard a pill to swallow. It’s easier to believe that someone was to blame, therefore it could be controlled and wouldn’t happen to them.
Assigning blame is the only way some people can make sense of a senseless thing.
But with a global pandemic, the blame has to be much grander—and grand, global conspiracies are a favorite theme in Conspiracyland. They are SO big and SO grandiose that it feels silly to even try to refute them. And the people who peddle these theories are really good at making people feel good about themselves for believing in them.
You know something the “sheep” do not! You are awake while the majority are asleep. You are informed and thinking critically while the masses are just doing what mainstream media tells them. You are part of an information revolution that sees what’s really happening while the rest have the wool pulled over their eyes. You are special because you’re in the know. It’s all being controlled, and you can be secure in knowing that you understand what’s really happening.
That messaging is incredibly effective on some people under normal circumstances. During a global pandemic, it’s downright hypnotizing, even for some people who normally wouldn’t be swayed by conspiracy theories.
And unfortunately, once people head into that rabbit hole, it’s really hard to get them back out.
It doesn’t matter that the globally coordinated scope of such conspiracies would have to be so unbelievably vast—with thousands upon thousands of people and hundreds of nations who can’t agree on anything suddenly being able to work together for evil and also keep it all a secret—as to be literally impossible.
It doesn’t matter that the majority of the world’s immunologists and epidemiologists—some of the nerdiest science geeks on the planet (said with the greatest of love and respect)—are most assuredly not part of a secret society working in cahoots with a Deep State or Globalist cabal to implant microchips or force vaccination on people, but folks who genuinely went into their line of work to help humanity through exactly the situation we are currently in.
It doesn’t matter that Bill Gates’ TED Talk on how we weren’t prepared for a pandemic in 2015 was not, in fact, a supervillain movie monologue outlining his diabolical plan, nor does it matter that Event 201 was just one of many pandemic simulations conducted over the years. Not even the world’s dumbest person would plan a purposeful pandemic in full public view, much less one of the world’s smartest people.
It doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence that 5G technology causes flu-like symptoms and that any legitimate health concerns about 5G have exactly nothing to do with the coronavirus outbreak.
It doesn’t matter that the “mainstream media” that conspiracy theorists love to demonize is not a monolithic thing with a unified messaging plan paid for by a political party or George Soros or whatever, but rather competing entities made up of thousands of journalists who actually do care about reporting on reality and upholding journalistic standards.
Facts and reason and logic don’t matter. Once people wade into the muddy conspiracy theory waters, it sucks them down like quicksand. Reputable sources refuting or debunking their claims are just part of the conspiracy. Rational arguments fall on deaf ears. They think they’re the ones thinking critically, but as soon as you start making too much sense, they “agree to disagree” and walk away because the cognitive dissonance is too much for them to sit with for too long.
Right now, it all comes down to what people are emotionally and psychologically able to handle, and there are a whole lot of people who just cannot live with a pandemic level of uncertainty and insecurity. When you desperately want answers in a situation where there aren’t clear answers, you’re left to either accept that reality or go with a made-up answer so that you don’t have to sit in the excruciating uncertainty of it all.
Conspiracy theory pushers live for these times when they can prey on people’s fears and provide the certainty and security people crave, no matter how outlandish or unreal the conspiracy.
And I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t have the time or the energy to fight every conspiracy theorist I encounter. But I do feel a tiny bit better knowing why so many people seem to be falling for this stuff at the moment.
(Next up I’ll get into where we find facts, how we determine what are reliable sources, and how to identify misinformation. I feel like that’s needed more than ever now.)