Back in April, whilst we were in the initial stages of the pandemic, I read a New Statesman article which explored how history reveals pandemics to be fertile petri dishes for the insidious growth of conspiracy theories.
As it was the beginning of lockdown and I was attempting to contend with the plurality of lifestyle changes we all found ourselves faced with, I pushed this unsettling but prescient information to the back of my mind.
As the pandemic has progressed, it feels we are increasingly confronted with news stories concerning the rise of conspiracy theories, from discussions about the role QAnon may play in the upcoming US presidential election to whether Covid-19 was artificially created in a lab.
For a time, wrapped up in the immediacy of everyday life, I skipped over many of these headlines – until several weeks ago when I had my first real-life brush with proponents of a Covid-19 conspiracy theory, which despite being a fleeting encounter left a decisive impression on me.
On a journey to meet a friend, I found myself wandering through King’s Cross Station. I have always felt there is a magical, whimsical quality to the station, which might explain the strange sense of comfort I normally feel when I find myself there. Maybe it is because King’s Cross is famously the secret entryway to the world’s most legendary wizardry school? Or perhaps it’s the gothic spires of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel outside, which evoke the Disney fairytale castles of childhood films?
On this occasion, as I weaved through the crowds, my internal sense of calm was disrupted by a somewhat incongruous scene. A group of people appeared to be engaged in loud disagreement with another person, their voices piercing the air. Though I could not decipher the exact words, I sensed a clear irritation in the cadences of their tones.
As I walked past, one of the group held up a sign which contained a reference to a ‘Media Virus’, appearing to suggest that Covid-19 was being fabricated by the press.
This momentary encounter forced my mind back to the contents of the article I had read all the way back in April. It jolted me to the disturbing realisation that conspiracy theories genuinely are gaining more traction during the pandemic, as the author had originally suggested they would. My disquiet at this alarming notion led me to discuss the phenomena with two local experts.
Professor Mark R. McDermott and Dr Anna Stone are both lecturers and researchers at the School of Psychology at the University of East London.
Professor McDermott’s work focuses on exploring personality and individual differences, with his current research ascertaining to how different personality characteristics are associated with the use or non-use of face coverings during the pandemic.
Dr Stone also conducts research exploring the reasons people hold the beliefs they do, in the fields of the paranormal, alternative therapies, conspiracy theories, and also in religion and politics. She is currently conducting research into the factors that influence people’s decisions to either go back to work or to continue to stay at home.
Professor McDermott believes the upsurge in conspiracy theories during pandemics can be partially attributed to the fact that belief in these theories can ameliorate some of the unpleasant feelings, like uneasiness and a loss of control, that pandemics engender.
He tells me: “The pandemic has created uncertainty and anxiety, the impact of which some people try to minimise by generating causal explanations that seek to attribute blame to what appear to be coordinated social, political or economic forces, since underpinning this desire is a disbelief that something so widespread could have occurred randomly or without orchestration.”
For those who do not adhere to conspiracy theories, there can be a sense of incredulity when considering how others can come to unquestioningly subscribe to far-fetched, implausible ideas which are directly contradicted by established evidence.
However, Dr Stone says that in order to effectively combat the rise in conspiracy theories we need to understand the underlying reasons which lead to some people becoming more susceptible to endorsing them.
She asserts that conspiracy theories are more likely to gain footing among those who feel dispossessed and marginalised, saying: “There have always been conspiracy theories, and they have tended to gain followers among those who feel disenfranchised and disengaged from social, economic, and political life.
“People for whom the system is working – they have a job and a decent place to live – are more likely to be happy with the status quo.
“People who lack the basic necessities have a pent-up anger and this may express itself in somewhat unfocused ways as a mistrust of government and health officials.”
Professor McDermott adds: “At a social level, adhering to particular beliefs often confirms membership of a specific social group and a sense of identity and belonging.
“Most people experience membership of a social group as supportive; during a pandemic, in which much is uncertain, such membership is all the more important. So, paradoxically, identifying with a conspiracy theory may be experienced as a form of safety behaviour, since being in a group of like-minded people may offer a semblance of protection and security in unpredictable times.”
Dr Stone believes the sharp economic downturn, along with the unprecedented social isolation and loss the pandemic has heralded, could create a perfect storm of conditions which render increasing numbers of people impressionable to conspiracy theories.
She explains: “The Covid-19 pandemic has left many bereaved families and the lockdown has brought financial hardship to many more. This leaves large numbers of people vulnerable to conspiracy theories as a way of expressing anger and mistrust.”
This is particularly troubling given that, historically, conspiracy theories that have emerged during pandemics have scapegoated minority groups, casting them as the nefarious architects of these disasters, which has subsequently led to the persecution of groups deemed to be foreigners and outsiders.
During the bubonic plague outbreak in medieval Europe, Jewish communities were massacred. In the US, Irish Catholics were blamed during Cholera epidemics in the 19th century. This year, we have seen a severe escalation in anti-Chinese racism resulting in a range of terrifying physical assaults.
Last week, Piers Corbyn, the brother of the former Labour leader, took part in a controversial live interview on Good Morning Britain. He had grabbed headlines for his role in organising an anti-lockdown protest and subsequently receiving a £10,000 fine. As his nephew, Tommy Corbyn, pointed out on Twitter, Piers only spoke for himself and every family has a Piers.
Famous relatives aside, the interview raised ethical questions about the extent to which the national press should provide exposure to those espousing views which denigrate the health guidance of official scientific sources and cast doubt on the very existence of Covid-19.
During the interview, Corbyn made a number of statements suggesting the public are being deliberately misled about the nature of coronavirus, and that measures implemented to curb the spread of the disease were indicative of “a psychological operation to close the economy in the interests of mega corporations”.
Although he was challenged by the presenters, as well as a medically qualified doctor who branded his views “dangerous” and provided scientific evidence to contradict his claims, Corbyn nevertheless had the opportunity to voice his opinions on a large platform prior to the 12-minute interview being brought to a close.
Good Morning Britain is viewed by an audience which can number hundreds of thousands. During the course of the interview, no detailed explanation or broader critique of conspiracy theories was provided.
A more responsible approach might have been to interview an expert in this area who could highlight how conspiracy theories manifest and the dangers they pose to society, rather than platforming someone who is an advocate for conspiracy theories.
Many on social media who have experienced Covid-19 or lost family members to the virus have emphasised that a similar stage would not be afforded to those questioning the existence of other types of illnesses.
It is particularly reckless for a major breakfast show to platform these views in relation to Covid-19 given its infectious nature, where eradication is reliant not only on the actions of governments but also on individuals enacting behavioural changes to stem the spread.
Dr Stone believes the uptick of conspiracy theories could also significantly compromise the success of any vaccine, were one to be found.
She says there are evolutionary reasons as to why humans can find viruses and vaccines particularly disconcerting: “We are prepared by evolution to find it easy to acquire fears of some phenomena more than others.
“We find it easy to become fearful of things we can’t see – radiation, mobile phone signals, viruses and bacteria, for example – and things that could pose a threat to our health. This makes us particularly vulnerable to scares around vaccines.”
Ultimately, the pandemic shows no sign of abating in the near future, so it is likely that conspiracy theories will continue to proliferate, leaving society grappling with the problem of how to quell this trend.
The national press could cease to give conspiracy theorists a platform and our government could develop robust welfare policies which lower the rates of people feeling disaffected and hopeless. Because these theories can have extremely damaging consequences in the real world.
As Dr Stone says about coronavirus: “If the number of people taking the vaccine is insufficient, we run the risk of the virus continuing to circulate and continuing loss of life and restrictions on our liberty.
“We have seen this with the entirely false claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism – concerned parents failed to have their children vaccinated, causing outbreaks of measles with consequent loss of life and permanent brain damage to children.”