In recent days a new slickly produced video has been circulating on social media, proposing scientifically impossible claims about the coronavirus and how to treat it.
The 26-minute coronavirus conspiracy theory video is shot in the style of a documentary, but with false information about the COVID-19 pandemic – including an allegation that death figures are being fabricated in order to control the population.
And one conspiracy theory that refuses to go away is that deployment of 5G radio antennas is linked to the outbreak.
As conspiracy theories seem to become more prominent in our digital lives, Sky News has spoken to experts to explain the psychology underpinning their appeal and the digital communities that share and spread them for political purposes.
Professor Karen Douglas, from the University of Kent, has spent years studying the psychology of conspiracy theories to explain why some of the most outlandish claims appeal to some people more than the truth.
She says people turn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not met.
“The first of these needs can be classified as epistemic – related to the need people have to be knowledgeable and accurate,” Professor Douglas says
“The second are existential – related to the need to feel safe and secure in the world. For example, research shows that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they feel powerless or are anxious.
“The third type of motives are social – related to the need to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups we belong to.”
Narcissistic people are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, Professor Douglas adds.
Unfortunately, her research shows that while these beliefs are appealing to people whose psychological needs are not met in some way, they generally fail to fulfill these needs.
“Rather than providing people with a sense of certainty, conspiracy theories seem more likely to take it away and make people feel more uncertain,” she says.
Dr Marc Tuters, who researches radical political subcultures online at the University of Amsterdam, told Sky News his team has seen a large number of conspiracy theories connected to the coronavirus pandemic.
These include “the idea that it is a bioweapon, either made by the US or the Chinese; that it’s a secret plot by the pharmaceutical industry, and that it’s a conspiracy by the ‘deep state’ against ‘the general will of the people’,” he says.
Crucially, “all of these theories predate the actual pandemic, and have communities of acolytes and true believers who tend to congregate on various fringe parts of the web”, Dr Tuters adds.
“Most conspiracy theories share a core feature that something is being covered up, so the conspiracy theories are not as different as they would appear,” Professor Douglas says.
They involve “intense mistrust of governments or outside groups”, she says.
“The actors and details differ, but both would appear to satisfy the general idea that authorities and outside groups cannot be trusted and are hiding the truth from the people.”
Dr Tuters says the question of whether these people actually believe in the conspiracy theories is less important than the theories being circulated.
“It takes very little effort to circulate information on social media,” he adds, noting people can sometimes do so in an ironic fashion or completely authentically – but keep them in circulation all the same.
“In this sense, the circulation of conspiracy theories may be metaphorically a little like the coronavirus itself,” he says. “Perhaps many circulate the virus without even realising that they have been infected?”
That said, there are a “host of conspiracy theory entrepreneurs” tied to a particularly prevalent conspiracy theory in the US called QAnon, who have “pivoted to promoting various COVID-19 conspiracy theories as well as cashing in with various snake oil remedies”.
The QAnon conspiracy theory has been tied to the far-right in America, suggesting there is a secret plot against President Donald Trump by the “deep state” – a hidden power structure within the elected government.
Dr Tuters says: “So far, Twitter, for example, has never been willing to delete any of Trump’s conspiratorial tweets, though it did recently take unprecedented action deleting some of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s tweets, as well as those of Trump’s adviser Rudy Giuliani, which contain misleading information about the pandemic.”
According to Dr Tuters, many of these claims are being amplified by Mr Trump, who he says encourages them by a process of insinuation, using phrases such as, “a lot of people are saying”.
“He did this with the Obama birth certificate, and other far-right conspiracy theories, and now he is doing this with the conspiracy theory that COVID is a manmade virus,” Dr Tuters says.
This theory remains in circulation, despite scientists analysing the entirety of the novel coronavirus’ genomic sequence and disproving claims that it may have been made in a laboratory or been otherwise engineered.
Can you stop people believing in these harmful ideas?
Professor Douglas says it is hard.
“Once people firmly believe in conspiracy theories, it is very difficult to convince them otherwise. At the moment, we don’t know a great deal about what works.
“However, we do know that a type of inoculation does work to reduce the impact of conspiracy theories on people’s attitudes and behaviours.”
She explains something called “pre-bunking” – short for pre-debunking – can sometimes prevent conspiracy theories from influencing people’s behaviour, such as choosing not to vaccinate their children.
“A lot of the time, this is not very practical because the conspiracy theories have already gained some traction, but it is a technique that works, so if it is possible to get in early with the correct information, the conspiracy theories may have less impact.”