On 11 March, the World Health Organization had officially announced COVID-19 as a pandemic and public health emergency. Since then, we've been witnessing a worrying rise in the number of coronavirus cases that have reached a deadly 5 million mark in India. To create further awareness, recovered patients have recounted their experiences on social media describing their symptoms and treatment.
Despite the availability of a staggering amount of information supporting the presence of the virus and emphasizing its lethality, there's a conspiracy going around that the pandemic is just an elaborate hoax.
Since March 28, in the US, coronavirus deniers have been using the hashtag #FilmYourHospital to persuade people to visit local hospitals and take pictures or videos to prove that the COVID-19 pandemic is an elaborate hoax. This theory rests on the assumption that if hospital parking lots and waiting rooms are empty then the pandemic must not be real or is not as severe as reported by health authorities and the media.
Indians haven’t gone as far as to disbelieve the existence of the virus but fake theories are spreading here as well. We’ve seen a surge in the circulation of unproven home remedies to ward off viruses such as increasing Vitamin C intake and ingesting hot lemon water. Some WhatsApp users even received a fake voice note attributed to Dr. Devi Shetty, that advised against getting tested for coronavirus, which was shared over 5,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.
So, while you're diligently washing your hands and wearing a mask, there are people who are refusing to take precautions and are compromising others’ and their own health because they don’t ‘believe’ in the virus.
If your loved ones fall into this category, how exactly do you convince them to stay home? First, let’s take a closer look at the growing trend of coronavirus conspiracies in India.
Many Indians are falling prey to intriguing conspiracy theories without any factual evidence. Thankfully major platforms such as YouTube and Twitter have stepped up and deleted such misinformation such as the ludicrous anti-mask video that encouraged people to ditch their masks as they claimed that it was ineffective against the virus. However, if you're curious to know how wild people's imaginations can run, many news publications have reported on the various theories that were floating around on the internet.
What kind of COVID -19 conspiracy theories are going around?
You may recall that during the beginning of the outbreak, many news channels were proposing that the virus was accidentally released by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or that it was deliberately made as a biowarfare weapon by the Chinese. But these theories are relatively harmless, there are some that openly persuade people to not take precautions against the virus such as the anti-mask theory.
Taking inspiration from the US, there's also a growing trend of Indian anti-mask crusaders now. This trend gained traction after a popular video that may appear as satire, had five youngsters talking about being enslaved by masks and losing our freedom. Released two days after Independence Day, in the video, the anti-mask crusaders advocated for forgoing the use of masks as they claimed masks were useless against protecting us from the virus. They also emphasized the fact that breathing through a mask means inhaling carbon dioxide which is far more dangerous than the risk of the virus.
“This is not independence,” said one of them, pointing at his face mask. “It's a psychological operation to control you,” said another. Towards the end, they all burned their masks.
According to VICE India, the video was posted by someone who identified himself as Dr. Biswaroop Roy Chowdhury on his Twitter and YouTube accounts. Before it was taken down for violating Twitter rules on August 17, the video reportedly had 617,000 views.
On social media, people are still ardently defending the anti-mask agenda claiming masks to be a psychological experiment by the government. In a lot of these theories, people lay suspicion on authorities or powerful and rich figures and accuse them of controlling or manipulating the masses.
For example, one theory accused Microsoft founder, Bill Gates of plotting to spread the virus and then eliminating around 15 percent of the population through fake vaccinations. The billionaire who donated $150 million to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to developing nations has been thought to have a hidden agenda to poison people from third-world countries.
Even Madonna, a revered pop star shared a questionable video, spread misinformation about the pandemic to her 15 million followers. The video displayed Stella Immanuel, a member of a group named America Frontline Doctors, claiming that masks and lockdowns were ineffective against the pandemic and that only the drug, hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) could cure Covid-19.
Even though, the US President himself advertised the potential benefits of HCQ, the Center for Disease Control, after several studies, has announced that it's an ineffective treatment for coronavirus. The WHO has also clarified that the drug has no clinical benefits in treating Covid-19. Despite official studies discrediting HCQ as a cure, the 61-year-old singer captioned the video saying, a cure for Covid-19 had “been found and proven and has been available for months” as reported by the Print.
An interesting poll collecting data from the United Kingdom, United States, France, Austria, and Germany showed that 62% of respondents in the UK believe that the virus is a man-made biological weapon. In the same UK poll, 21% thought that coronavirus is caused by 5G and is a form of radiation poisoning transmitted through radio waves. A small percentage of people also thought that Jews created the virus to collapse the economy for their own financial gain.
The spread of misinformation about the virus could worsen the already harrowing health crisis. So, what do you do if you encounter a coronavirus conspiracy enthusiast?
Try to reason with them before judging them
Before we judge them, we may need to consider the possibility that it may not be their fault. There's an endless supply of misinformation circulating on the internet with no one to regulate what's true and what isn't.
In the end, we get a whole percentage of people believing that major organizations are conspiring against them. In any other scenario, we can let this go but this isn't a question of subjective belief so we can't agree to disagree on this one. However, prior to expending energy to explain why they might be mistaken, consider the context of the situation.
This is important because of the gravity of the situation and the subject. Is there enough time to engage them in a meaningful conversation? Are they even interested to listen to you? Do you feel you have the mental and emotional capacity to have this discussion?
These self-reflective questions will help you decide whether you want to open this pandora's box or not. Sometimes, we can encounter aggressive people who are close-minded and unwilling to listen. Engaging with them can be stressful so don't consider yourself as the savior of the correct information and unnecessarily waste your time.
It may be easier to interact with loved ones when correcting coronavirus-related misinformation. The rumour doesn't even have to be huge, it can just be a floating theory that China created the virus for which there isn't any official proof.
You can speak to them and understand why they might believe such a rumour. Sometimes, extreme paranoia and impressionability have clouded their judgment. In such situations, it's okay to challenge their misinformed belief and present yourself as an ally rather than someone attacking them.
Avoid attacking the person or patronizing them
Instead of going off on a monologue, take time out to listen to their side of reasoning as well. Nobody likes to be lectured and chances are they might ignore valuable information if you come across as too bossy or patronizing. An approach suggested by Emma Frances, Bloomfield, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Nevada, is to engage in a back-and-forth discussion about the topic or a dialogue.
This shows that you care about the person behind the opinion, even when you disagree. For example, in heated political debates, an anti-BJP person may judge a BJP supporter based on their ideology and consider them as 'stupid' or 'delusional'. These derogatory terms will only make your listener more obstinate in their original stance as you've angered them right from the beginning.
One way of creating a connection with your ideological opponent is to talk about the mutual struggles of finding accurate information in recent times. Acknowledging that there's an abundance of information then can take the shame of believing false information away from the other person. Often, we dislike admitting our mistakes and realizing that we are wrong can be a shameful experience if the tone of the debate is competitive.
According to Bloomfield, this will also make people feel comfortable with changing their opinion and accepting new information, instead of sticking to their previous beliefs to avoid admitting they were wrong.
The next step would be to ask them to name the source for their information. If they mention a video or a blog post, go into detail about how such sources have very little credibility as they aren't verified. All the while, it helps if you're interested in their opinion as it will help you ask better questions to challenge their statements.
Have a lengthy discussion on both of your sources
After inquiring about their sources, slowly introduce them to more credible sources backed by scientific evidence. But what if they reject it and claim that it's been doctored? The book, Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics by Emma Frances Bloomfield talks about tackling this problem.
The author recounts an anecdote of a conversation she had had with a climate change skeptic who refused to believe that scientists had reached a 97% consensus on the existence of climate change. The skeptic dismissed this well-established number by referring to nonscientific sources and blog posts. But instead of insulting their sources, Bloomfield offered to trade sources with them. They made a deal where for each of their sources I read, they would read one of mine.
Reading their sources may help you understand the psychology of conspirators or at the least, you'll come out feeling amused after reading them. While doing your bit, give them articles by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Centers for Disease Control to educate them on the medical aspects of coronavirus.
You can also suggest fact-checking websites such as Snopes, Alt News, and AFP that often debunk misinformation. If you've reached this stage, it is a huge accomplishment for you since it is really difficult and time-consuming to engage someone who is misinformed.
However, your efforts will have a ripple effect and the newly informed person can then debunk the same myths for other conspiracy believers. Your societal service will be greatly appreciated but remember to not overdo it and prioritize your mental health first.
Apart from these basic tricks and tips, it might also help if you stepped inside the mind of a conspiracy propagator for a minute. Understanding their psychology can help you persuade them more smoothly.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories didn't emerge alongside Covid-19, they've been around forever such as the Moon landing hoax, the 9/11 conspiracy, and the infamous Holocaust deniers. India has also had its fair share of conspiracy enthusiasts. Take the case of Amaresh Misra, a writer, who claimed that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were organized jointly by the CIA, Mossad, and RSS. According to him, the Intelligence Bureau was behind the killing of the Mumbai Police's Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare.
So, they start with a person or a group of people making claims but what makes these claims so believable?
Some researchers suggest that the human brain is hardwired to detect potentially dangerous patterns as it offers evolutionary survival advantage and that is why we take these conspiracy theories seriously. However, experts argue that there isn't sufficient evidence to support this hypothesis. Rather, they think it could be as simple as a conspiracy theory giving us an explanation when we're so badly craving one and if that explanation reinforces our worldview, we embrace it even more.
Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and a recognized expert in conspiracy theories, tells SELF that a region's specific culture can play a role in the kinds of conspiracy theories that they believe.
For example, in India where there's a democracy, people believe the government shouldn't infringe on their freedoms and rights. Additionally, we have huge wealth inequalities in our country so there's a natural class divide and the working class has a disdain towards the elite who they might think are conspiring against them.
This doesn't mean every Indian is vulnerable to conspiracy theories but just presents possible explanations for why people might feel inclined to believe in them. The anti-mask video, for example, used the ideal of freedom to convince people to stop wearing masks and told them that the government is 'manipulating' them. Uscinski purports, “Every country’s culture contributes to the theories their citizens believe in.”
Are some people more prone to falling for conspiracy theories?
Many researchers believe that certain people have a psychological predisposition that makes them more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. They haven't, however, found a specific characteristic that defines these people.
Conspiracy theories may seem attractive for people who feel unheard or left out in their social circles. So, the fact that they now have a 'special' group that believes in something extraordinary helps them gain a sense of identity and belonging. It can make them feel more intelligent than the rest for figuring out the 'mystery'.
Peter Knight, a professor of American studies at Manchester University who researches conspiracy theories, tells SELF, “Somehow the rest of the world missed this, but you, sitting behind your computer, put the pieces together.”
Even people with a stable identity can fall for colorful conspiracy theories as they can lessen uncertainty and the weight of randomness of negative events such as a pandemic.
Conspiracy theories explain scary events
When we're faced with the absurdities of life or anxiety, we blame it on fate or a higher power but we rarely do ever call an incident meaningless. As controlling and meaning-making creatures we dislike threats, uncertainty, and complex events that undermine our sense of control.
So, some of us turn to the comfort of simple explanations, as Joanne Miller, a psychology professor at the University of Delaware department of political science says, “That can make us connect dots that shouldn’t be connected.”
This explanation fits very well with coronavirus, as it has turned our lives upside-down and transformed social interactions to voice and video calls. More than that, we're unsure of the release of a vaccine and it's impossible for anyone to predict exactly when we can resume our normal lives or if we ever can. All these questions are bound to send a chill down anyone's spine and for some people it is hard to accept that even scientists do not know how to solve this crisis.
“It’s easier to wrap your head around the idea of human actors being responsible for catastrophe than to acknowledge that life is largely random and unfair,” Joshua Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Union University who studies conspiracy theories explains.
But it's not the coronavirus outbreak that is leading to the increase in conspiracy theories. It's the general uncertainty that has burgeoned in the past months. “We shouldn’t confuse the fact that we’re paying a lot of attention to [COVID-19] with the view that conspiracy theories might be rising,” says Uscinski. Instead, it may be that uncertainty in general is a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.
Some people want to support a political cause or belief
It is a known fact that we tend to be attracted to information that supports our beliefs and ignore information that contradicts our beliefs. Unlike the President of the US, our Prime Minister has not questioned the validity of the virus and did instruct citizens to use masks and practice social distancing.
While Modi was appreciated for his actions, Trump faced widespread criticism for mishandling the pandemic. So, Uscinski suggests that some of his supporters may have sprouted conspiracy theories as a way to absolve him and scapegoat others.
Studies reported that this misinformation has led people to undermine the virus. A recent study found that 29% of people believe COVID-19 was exaggerated to damage President Trump; other research suggests that people who relied on conservative media early on in the COVID-19 outbreak are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
You might be surprised to learn that, according to a 2017 study, even people who score high on rational and intellectual metrics subscribe to conspiracy theories. This could be because of their ability to rationalize a conspiracy theory and persuade themselves.
Other political fanatics might join the bandwagon of a conspiracy theory solely to further their political agenda, even if they don't believe the theory.
We can't really tell if certain political parties participate more in using these theories as a political tool. Miller says research doesn’t show that one political party is more conspiratorial; “rather, we see conservatives believe different conspiracy theories than liberals,” she says.
Social media influencers and the internet can draw you in conspiracy theories
Joseph Vitriol, a psychologist from Harvard University and political scientist at Stony Brook who studies conspiracy theories warns influential people, brands, or outlets “can have a direct effect on what people believe is true.”
It's no secret that the internet is littered with misinformation and the onus rests on the reader to figure out if what they're reading is true. But what about when a verified influencer starts talking about conspiracy theories? Kangana Ranaut's claims about the actor, Sushant Singh Rajput's death being a murder conspiracy rather than a suicide is a prime example of this. Media outlets take up such claims and send them out to even larger audiences which creates chaos and misinformation.
In short, conspiracy theories are a trap that anyone can fall into and it's only through difficult conversations that we can spread proper awareness about the coronavirus pandemic.