Skip to main content

Coronavirus conspiracy theories are dangerous – here’s how to stop them spreading




Conspiracy theories increase the likelihood that people won’t follow expert advice. Shutterstock


The number of coronavirus infections and deaths continues to rise at an alarming rate, reminding us that this crisis is far from over. In response, the global scientific community has thrown itself at the problem and research is unfolding at an unprecedented rate.

The new virus was identified, along with its natural origins, and tests for it were rapidly developed. Labs across the world are racing to develop a vaccine, which is estimated to be still around 12 to 18 months away.

At the same time, the pandemic has been accompanied by an infodemic of nonsense, disinformation, half-truths and conspiracy theories that have spread virally through social networks. This damages society in a variety of ways. For example, the myth that COVID-19 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu was deployed by US president Donald Trump as justification for delaying mitigation policies.

The recent downgrading of COVID-19 death projections, which reveal the success of social-distancing policies, has been falsely used to justify premature relaxing of social distancing measures. This is the logical equivalent of throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because it’s kept you dry until then.

The new conspiracy theory that blames COVID-19 on the 5G broadband system is one of the most bizarre pieces of misinformation. There are several strains of this theory, ranging from the claims that 5G alters people’s immune systems to the idea that 5G changes people’s DNA, making them more susceptible to infection. Then there’s the idea that secret messages about 5G and coronavirus were hidden in the design of the new £20 note in the UK. In reality, 5G relates to viruses and bank notes as much as the tooth fairy relates to zoology – not at all.

The 5G conspiracy theory originated in early March when an American physician, Thomas Cowan, proposed it in a YouTube video (which has since been taken down by YouTube according to their new policy). Some people have taken this conspiracy theory so seriously that it led to people setting 5G towers in the UK on fire and threatening broadband engineers.

The conspiracy theory has begun to penetrate mainstream society. Among other celebrities, UK TV personality Eamonn Holmes and US actor Woody Harrelson have given fuel to the idea.

Inoculating against conspiracy theories

As we document in our recent Conspiracy Theory Handbook, there is a great deal of scientific research into why people might be susceptible to conspiracy theories. When people suffer loss of control or feel threatened, it makes them more vulnerable to believing conspiracies. Unfortunately, this means that pandemics have always been breeding grounds for conspiracy theories, from antisemitic hysteria during the Black Death to today’s 5G craze.

An effective strategy for preventing conspiracy theories from spreading through social networks is, appropriately enough, inoculation. As we document in the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, if we inoculate the public by pre-emptively warning them of misleading misinformation, they develop resilience and are less likely to be negatively influenced. Inoculating messages can take several forms. As well as giving people the right facts, inoculation can also be logic-based and source-based.

Questioning the sources

The source-based approach focuses on analysing the people who push the conspiracy theory and the cultural infrastructure from which they emerged.

For example, the 5G theory began with Thomas Cowan, a physician whose medical licence is on a five-year probation. He is currently prohibited from providing cancer treatment to patients and supervising physician assistants and advanced practice nurses. So we can question his credentials.

His 5G video was from a talk he presented at a pseudo-scientific conference featuring a who’s who of science deniers. One of the headliners was Andrew Wakefield, a debarred former physician and seminal figure in the anti-vaccination movement who promotes highly damaging misinformation about vaccination based on data that he is known to have falsified.

Another attendee of this meeting was the president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, an organisation famous for bestowing awards onto fossil-fuel funded climate deniers and for giving a platform to a speaker who denied the link between HIV and AIDS, claiming that the link was invented by government scientists who wanted to cover up other health risks of “the lifestyle of homosexual men.”

For the public to be protected against the 5G conspiracy theory, it is important to understand its emergence from the same infrastructure that also supports AIDS denial, anti-vaccination conspiracies and climate denial.

It is therefore unsurprising that the rhetorical techniques that are deployed against the seriousness of climate change are similar to those used to mismanage the COVID-19 crisis.

Yale Climate ConnectionsAuthor provided

Questioning the logic

Another way to neutralise conspiracy theories is through logic-based inoculation. This involves explaining the rhetorical techniques and tell-tale traits to be found in misinformation, so that people can flag it before it has a chance to mislead them. In the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, we document seven traits of conspiratorial thinking. Spotting these can help people identify a baseless theory.

Conspiracy Theory HandbookAuthor provided

One trait that is particularly salient in the 5G conspiracy theory is re-interpreting randomness. With this thought pattern, random events are re-interpreted as being causally connected and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.

For example, the introduction of 5G in 2019 coincided with the origin of COVID-19 and hence is interpreted to be causally related. But by that logic, other factors that were introduced in 2019 – say, the global phenomenon of Baby Yoda – could also be interpreted as a possible cause of COVID-19.

Correlation does not equal causation. The 5G conspiracy theory is also immune to evidence, despite having been debunked extensively. To illustrate, some of the countries worst affected by the pandemic (such as Iran) do not have any 5G technology.

Of course, 5G has nothing to do with a virus. In the US, T-Mobile’s low-band 5G data is transmitted using old UHF TV channels. UHF TV did not cause coronavirus and neither does 5G.

John CookAuthor provided

The crucial role of social media platforms

Social media platforms contribute to the problem of misinformation by providing the means for it to quickly and freely disseminate to the general public. Given that 330,000 lives were lost in relation to AIDS in South Africa during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki, when denying the disease’s link to HIV was official state policy. Given that people in the UK are now vandalizing potentially life-saving communication infrastructure, social media companies should not aid and abet the life-threatening disinformation that is spewed by a nexus of science deniers and conspiracy theorists.

To their credit, these firms are making an effort to be part of the solution to the problem of misinformation. For example, YouTube has announced that it will take down any video that espouses the 5G conspiracy theory. This is a move in the right direction.

There is considerable room for improvement, however. A recent test by the non-profit Disinfo.eu laboratory found much conspiratorial content on various social media platforms, and we were able to find hundreds of YouTube videos promulgating the 5G nonsense with a few keystrokes.

Much remains to be done.The Conversation

---------------------------------------
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and John Cook, Research Assistant Professor, Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason UniversityThis article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Professor Stephan Lewandowsky
Dr John Cook

Popular posts from this blog

Powering the economy through the engine of Smart Local Energy Systems

How can the Government best retain key skills and re-skill and up-skill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth? This summer the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requested submission of inputs on Post-Pandemic Economic Growth. The below thoughts were submitted to the BEIS inquiry as part of input under the EnergyREV project . However, there are points raised here that, in the editing and summing up process of the submission, were cut out, hence, this blog on how the UK could power economic recovery through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES). 1. Introduction: Factors, principles, and implications In order to transition to a sustainable and flourishing economy from our (post-)COVID reality, we must acknowledge and address the factors that shape the current economic conditions. I suggest to state the impact of such factors through a set of driving principles for the UK’s post-COVID strategy. These factors are briefly explained belo

Farming in the Páramos of Boyacá: industrialisation and delimitation in Aquitania

Labourers harvest ‘cebolla larga’ onion in Aquitania. Image credit: Lauren Blake. In October and November 2019 Caboteer  Dr Lauren Blake  spent time in Boyacá, Colombia, on a six-week fieldtrip to find out about key socio-environmental conflicts and the impacts on the inhabitants of the páramos, as part of the historical and cultural component of her research project, POR EL Páramo . Background information about the research can be found in the earlier blog on the project website . Descending down the hill in the bus from El Crucero, the pungent smell of cebolla larga onion begins to invade my nose. The surrounding land transforms into plots of uniform rows of onion tops at various stages of growth, some mostly brown soil with shoots poking out along the ridges, others long, bushy and green. Sandwiched between the cloud settled atop the mountainous páramos and the vast, dark blue-green Lake Tota, all I can see and all I can smell is onion production. Sprinklers are scattered around, dr

IncrEdible! How to save money and reduce waste

The new academic year is a chance to get to grips with managing your student loan and kitchen cupboards. Over lockdown the UK wasted a third less food than we usually would. This is brilliant, as normally over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted from UK homes every year. For students, it’s even higher. The average cost of food waste per student per week is approximately £5.25 - that's about £273 per year !  It’s not just our bank accounts that are affected by food waste – it’s our planet too. The process of growing, making, distributing, storing and cooking our food uses masses of energy, fuel and water. It generates 30% of the world’s CO₂ greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount of CO₂ as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth, Australia! So it makes sense to keep as much food out of the bin as possible, start wasting less and saving more.  Start the new term with some food waste busting, budget cutting, environment loving habits! Here’s five easy ways to reduce