COVID-19 Creates Perfect Storm for Conspiracy Theories
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has created what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic,” giving conspiracy groups a bigger platform than ever before.
This led researchers at the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia to take a deep dive into social media to trace rumors that the coronavirus was caused by 5G technology.
They found what was once being preached to people who already believed the conspiracy was spread farther afield by social media and celebrities spreading the message.
Professor Axel Bruns, Associate Professor Stephen Harrington, and Dr. Edward Hurcombe joined forces for the Australian Research Council Discovery project. Working with researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia; Syracuse University in the United States; and Cardiff University in the U.K., the research project is expected to run through mid-2023.
It traces in detail the developments around the nonsensical and dangerous belief that 5G technology could cause or exacerbate the symptoms of a severe viral infection, the researchers said.
“Pre-existing conspiracy groups have jumped on the COVID-19 bandwagon and retrofitted their conspiracy theories to the pandemic, to argue the coronavirus outbreak justifies and proves their claims,” said Bruns.
“If you are against the roll-out of 5G, for example, then you link it with COVID-19,” he continued. “Other COVID-19 related conspiracy theories include claims it was developed in laboratory in Wuhan, (China), or that it is a ruse by a secret ‘world government’ to suppress civil liberties.”
Hurcombe noted that the research focused on the COVID-5G rumor first. That’s because of all the COVID-19 related misinformation stories, it has generated the most immediate and visible impacts, he explained. In April, mobile phone towers in the UK, The Netherlands, and elsewhere were attacked, the researchers said.
“Much of the early circulation of COVID/5G mis- and disinformation remained niche and reached only existing conspiracy communities,” he said. “It also existed early on in a wide range of languages, but English-language content contributed most prominently to its spread.”
“We found lockdowns and other government restrictions seemed to lead to a growth in COVID/5G misinformation.”
This could be because some people assume there’s some kind of hidden agenda behind COVID-19 and the 5G technology, Hurcombe said. But it also could simply be a sign of “people having more time on their hands to search social media for coronavirus-related content,” he said.
Celebrities like singer Keri Hilson and actor Woody Harrelson played a significant role in amplifying mis- and disinformation beyond established conspiracy communities, added Harrington.
Musicians, actors, sports figures, fringe politicians, and evangelist preachers — especially in Africa — have “all been guilty of this,” he said.
“Coverage of their statements in entertainment and mainstream media further amplified such misinformation, even if the media coverage was critical,” he noted.
When government and health officials are forced to respond to conspiracy theories, and the mainstream media publishes fact checks, the conspiracy theorists have reached their goals, Bruns said.
“It’s win-win for the conspiracy theorists — when their claims are widely reported, even critically, they can then present any denials of their claims as evidence that the government is trying to suppress ‘the truth’,” he said. “This makes the true believers even more committed.”
“However, debunking is still valuable if it stops other citizens from falling prey to such mis- and disinformation,” he said. “The same is true for content warnings and takedowns: Conspiracy theorists will see them as proof that there really is a conspiracy, but at least they stop the content from circulating any further.”
The paper is published in Media International Australia.
Wood, J. (2020). COVID-19 Creates Perfect Storm for Conspiracy Theories. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/08/08/covid-19-creates-perfect-storm-for-conspiracy-theories/158692.html