Why do people buy in to crazy coronavirus conspiracy theories?

As Covid-19 spreads around the world, so too does fake news and myths about malevolent forces causing the pandemic, writes Monique Verduyn

19 April 2020 - 00:04 By Monique Verduyn
What or who caused the coronavirus has been the subject of several conspiracy theories.
What or who caused the coronavirus has been the subject of several conspiracy theories.
Image: Supplied

Perhaps it was when Woody Harrelson linked 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic. Or it might have been the creepy man from Cape Town with an earbud up his nose who claimed in a viral video that Covid-19 test kits are contaminated.

Possibly the final straw was Jesus versus Satan: The Origins of Coronavirus, a book that appeared briefly on Amazon before mercifully being taken down for violating content guidelines. Whatever. Something inside me broke.

Why do people believe such ghastly ideas as the pharmaceutical industry intentionally spreading diseases, vaccines causing illness rather than preventing them, 9/11 being initiated by banking, corporate and military interests for the purpose of creating a new world order, and that we have been lied to even about the shape of our planet?

For conspiracists, nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected. There is no room for coincidence and everywhere are sinister and powerful forces fighting for control of … what exactly? They believe themselves to possess hidden knowledge of how the world "really" operates, while everyone else has been hoodwinked.


According to research, the overly suspicious refuse evidence to satisfy three psychological motives:

  1. The epistemic motive - the desire for certainty and explanation.
  2. The existential motive - they tend to be anxious and insecure and therefore seek control over what happens.
  3. The social motive - whether due to self-love or self-hate, conspiracy theorists are often narcissists who need to feel good about themselves and to know more than others who do not recognise their greatness.
Some sophisticated conspiracy theories have the power to seduce the sceptical and credulous alike

Some conspiracy theories are ridiculous, like the one that claimed Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring at the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC, or David Icke's argument that flesh-eating, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids - many of whom are Jewish - live among us, with only one cold-blooded objective, to enslave all of humanity (yes, really). But some are more sophisticated and have the power to seduce the sceptical and credulous alike.


They would be gobsmacked to know it, but at the centre of two centuries of conspiracy theories are the unfortunate Illuminati, a group founded by university professor Adam Weishaupt in 1776 in Bavaria, and as its name suggests, dedicated purely to enlightenment and the concepts of free thought, liberalism and republicanism.

No surprise then that it was quickly disbanded by the Germany government of the time. But the idea of the society was picked up by conspiracy theorists who believed the Illuminati had survived their suppression and become the masterminds behind the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

The Eye of Providence (or the all-seeing eye of God) is a symbol that's often linked to the Illuminati by conspiracy theorists.
The Eye of Providence (or the all-seeing eye of God) is a symbol that's often linked to the Illuminati by conspiracy theorists.
Image: 123RF

This idea flared up again in the early 20th century when right-wing thinkers started to propagate the idea that the Illuminati were on the up.

Among the more pernicious products was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document that served as a pretext and rationale for anti-Semitism in the early 20th century. It fuelled the belief that Jews and Freemasons were planning to disrupt Christian civilisation and erect a world state under their joint rule.

Conspiracy theories are speculative and specifically go against the official version of events or the received wisdom of the time. Although the Protocols were proved to be fake, when people believe that evil forces are at work, the lack of evidence for the theory is evidence in itself.


It's rather fun to imagine the typical conspiracy theorist as a sad single guy who lives in his parents' basement and spends all his time on Reddit, but the vaccine resistance movement - responsible for effectively reversing decades of progress in disease prevention - is just one example of how dangerous conspiracy theories can become when they gain popularity and no longer exist on the fringe.

In 2019 the World Health Organisation named "vaccine hesitancy" one of the top 10 threats to global health.

Like other conspiracy movements, the antivaxxer faction has rubbed shoulders with the far right. Studies show that vaccine scepticism is a strong predictor for populist - read hard-right - politics in Europe. Right-wing media outlets have seized the opportunity to gain sympathy from the anti-vax movement, pushing even more extreme conspiracy theories under the guise of vaccine scepticism. White supremacist website Red Ice, for example, has churned out over 100 articles and radio clips bashing vaccines in recent years.

And so to the coronavirus. In addition to the Covid-19 disease, the novel coronavirus has also caused an outbreak of conspiracy theories, not only on social media but in mainstream outlets too.

Among them, the belief that 5G is somehow linked to the coronavirus pandemic has spread unlike any other. It all began with a GP in Belgium. The newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, under the header "Link met coronavirus?" published an interview with Dr Kris Van Kerckhoven, who pointed out that since 2019 a number of 5G cell towers had been built around Wuhan.

"I have not done a fact check," the good doctor cautioned, "but there may be a link with current events". And thus was the fire sparked. The story was taken off the news site - but it was too late. Claims by conspiracy theorists and celebrities linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic have led to petrol bomb attacks on phone masts in the UK, rebuttals from the British government and a torrent of Facebook posts from the creepy Cape Town guy.

Claims by conspiracy theorists and celebrities linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic have led to petrol bomb attacks on phone masts in the UK

Full Fact, an independent fact-checking charity in the UK, has stated that there is no evidence linking the new coronavirus to 5G, nor that 5G is harmful to humans. The next generation of wireless network technology, following on from 4G, like 3G and 2G before it, 5G mobile data is transmitted over radio waves. These radio waves are non-ionising, meaning they don't damage the DNA inside cells.

According to the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which sets guidelines on the output of mobile masts, there isn't a single scientifically substantiated adverse health effect that can be attributed to a normal 5G installation.

But it hasn't stopped there. There's a theory that there are no outbreaks at all and that it's all a hoax to cover up the installation of 5G. According to the Pew Research Centre in the US, 29% of Americans believe the coronavirus was created in a lab. Politico recently reported that some supporters of Donald Trump see a threat bigger than the spread of a highly contagious novel coronavirus: they believe the virus is a "deep-state" (read Illuminati) plot to oust him.

In the US, Bill Gates trended on social media sites, with many claiming that the Microsoft co-founder is behind the creation of coronavirus. On March 31 he reached third spot on South Africa's Twitter trends, with thousands of people claiming Africa should not accept a vaccination for Covid-19 from Gates, even though no vaccination is currently available.

Such is the power of fake news, that a fake message claiming to be from a French doctor travelled swiftly from Facebook to Twitter, and from France to the US to South Africa. Gates has perennially been the target of conspiracy theories about the spread of diseases, the implication being that he somehow starts viruses so he can sell vaccinations. Every one of these theories has been debunked, but the speed with which each new one spreads online through echo chambers reinforces just how uncontrollably disinformation travels across countries, communities and internet platforms.


Facebook and other social media sites are working to fight the spread of false news but debunking myths is problematic. Reducing the influence of misinformation is a difficult and complex challenge. Unless great care is taken, you can inadvertently reinforce the very myths you seek to correct.

According to The Debunking Handbook, created by cognitive scientists Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, to avoid these "backfire effects", the best approach is to focus on the facts only. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to verify information.

According to The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, also by Lewandowsky and Cook, there are four questions worth asking before deeming something as true or false:

  1. Do I recognise the news organisation that posted the story?
  2. Does the information in the post seem believable?
  3. Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organisation?
  4. Is the post politically motivated?

When people feel like they have lost control of a situation, their conspiracist tendencies increase. But the opposite also applies. When people feel empowered, say Lewandowsky and Cook, they are more resilient. They stress that it's better to inoculate people pre-emptively against conspiracy theories rather than trying to go in afterwards and undo the damage.

If your goal is to convince conspiracy theorists, then an empathetic approach is necessary just to have a genuine dialogue. But it's always tough to convince people to change their minds. It's not enough to try to stamp out the poor-quality information, Cook says.

You have to put good information in its place. But if you've ever tried, you'll know that you run the risk of being labelled a member of the secret cabal of alien lizard people who run the world.


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