As new information on the continuously-developing COVID-19 surfaces every minute, not all media consumers are double-checking the validity of the sources that are providing these updates. A slew of misinformation plagues social media, resulting in the spread of wrong or simply contradicting CDC recommendations. Additionally, non-credible newspapers and magazines post articles that have little to no factual foundation, but, because they are labeled as ‘news sources,’ many blindly believe them.
Although there is a need for people to carefully source what they find online right now, this problem existed even before the pandemic began.
Among all the mediums through which one can produce and share false information, conspiracy theories are perhaps the most harmful to the public. This is particularly because their statements do not need to be verified as facts for people to treat them as such. It makes perfect sense why many people are quick to believe conspiracy theories. They serve as attention-grabbing, absurd methods to connect all the puzzle pieces that feel completely incompatible: conspiracy theories are propaganda we can’t seem to ignore. Often, we forget about the powerful forces of photoshop and other media manipulators that can transform innocent photographs and quotes into fuel that conveniently feeds the fire of these theories.
Sometimes, they can even be a great source of entertainment. For example, YouTuber Shane Dawson’s videos discussing the Mandela Effect, a theory of false memory, are amusing to watch because they do not deal with issues of utmost importance such as politics or a global crisis.
However, most conspiracy theories are capable of significantly more harm than some light entertainment. In the wake of COVID-19, a number of falsehoods have surfaced on the internet. One example is that Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, started the COVID-19 pandemic in 2018. This theory originates from the incorrect assumption that the Gates Foundation funded a patent for a COVID-19 vaccine in 2015. Bill Gates is also a common target of Qanon, a right-wing conspiracy theory group that believes “President Donald Trump was working with [former]-special counsel Robert Mueller to take down the president’s perceived enemies, the ‘deep state,’ and pedophile rings.” Qanon frequently devises stories about left-wing American politicians and celebrities, claiming they perform child sacrifices among various other absurd accusations.
The birth of this theory is difficult to track down, but it has somehow managed to garner the support of not only average people, who are overwhelmingly white men, but also high-profile individuals. In fact, even American politicians such as Matthew Lusk, a Florida Republican running for Congress in the Fifth Congressional District, have shown their support for this theory. Among the other politicians who have also mentioned their approval of QAnon are Danielle Stella (R-MN) and Rich Helms (R-TX). If our nation’s leaders are publicly supporting baseless ideas, it becomes difficult to know who or what to believe.
All of this is not to say that we must avoid any and all conspiracy theories, as they serve to question certain ideas that seem suspicious. Rather, we must remind ourselves that they do not always represent the truth. Although many know that most conspiracies lack research and treat them accordingly, there is a long-lasting bias that can be created just by engaging with these theories. Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka, members of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent in England, conducted a study that examined the psychological effects of conspiracies. Their research concluded that “conspiracy belief appears to stem to a large extent from epistemic, existential, and social motives,” meaning that people believe these seemingly unbelievable theories because they can provide answers to overwhelming and seemingly unanswerable questions.about various issues.
Overall, if the reader wishes to take anything away from this article, it is that no matter how conveniently conspiracy theories seem to connect all the dots, they should not be immediately trusted. It is undoubtedly difficult to weed through various ideas and decide which seem to be true. It can become even more challenging when people you value and trust hold their own opinions of them, but the responsibility is ultimately our own. Today, with the constant controversy surrounding our president and the panic brought on by COVID-19, we have found ourselves in the most fertile of breeding grounds for misinformation. As unfortunate as it is that our reality is one of immense deception, if everyone does his or her part to work through credible research and keep news sources accountable, the truth will be able to speak for itself.