In Depth

What makes people believe conspiracy theories?

Intelligence agencies say there is ‘no evidence’ to support claims that Covid-19 originated in lab

Claims from the both White House and conspiracy theorists worldwide that the new coronavirus was developed by Chinese scientists have been shot down by Western intelligence agencies.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

But The Guardian reports that intelligence sources say the allegations are not supported by information gathered by the Five Eyes network, a secret information-sharing alliance between the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

So why is speculation about the origins of the global pandemic continuing to spread?

How popular are conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon, and most people subscribe to them even if they don’t realise it, according to experts.

“Everybody believes in at least one and probably a few,” Professor Joe Uscinski, a political scientist and author of American Conspiracy Theories, told the BBC. “And the reason is simple: there is an infinite number of conspiracy theories out there. If we were to poll on all of them, everybody is going to check a few boxes.”

In 2018, an international study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and YouGov found that 60% of British people believed at least one conspiracy theory about how the country is run or the veracity of information they have been given.

Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

People’s pre-existing notions and prejudices tend to influence which conspiracy theories they are more likely to believe.

For example, the 2018 study showed that 47% of Brexit supporters believed the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants lived in the UK, versus just 14% of Remain voters.

And 31% of Leave voters believed that Muslim immigration was part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared with 6% of Remain voters.

The phenomenon isn’t confined to the UK. The study -  conducted over six years in a total of nine countries - found that in the US, 47% of Donald Trump voters believed that man-made global warming was a hoax, compared with 2.3% of people who had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

But conspiracies work both ways: people with more progressive views are more likely to believe conspiracy theories that undermine right-wing figures.

“People feel they belong to their group but it also means that people feel a certain sense of antagonism towards people in the other group,” Professor Sara Hobolt, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, told the BBC.

“When you actually look at the demographic data, belief in conspiracies cuts across social class, it cuts across gender and it cuts across age,” added Professor Chris French, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s, University of London.

The experts point out that while humanity’s ability to recognise trends and notice things that “don’t look right” was crucial to the successful evolution of our species, it can also be to our detriment.

“We are very good at recognising patterns and regularities. But sometimes we overplay that - we think we see meaning and significance when it isn't really there,” says French. “We also assume that when something happens, it happens because someone or something made it happen for a reason.”

Fake theories become even more popular when the normal world order is upset - such as during an unprecedented global pandemic.

”Conspiracy theories become more prominent in times of crisis and this has a lot to do with uncertainty,” Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent, told Harper’s Bazaar.

“People need explanations for significant events, and when information from official channels is incomplete, inconsistent, or continually unfolding – as is the case with coronavirus – we often look for quicker, simpler explanations.” 

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Do conspiracies matter?

Conspiracies may not be based in reality but they can have an influence on the real world.

“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said John Naughton, one of three University of Cambridge professors who led the 2018 research.

Speaking to The Guardian after publishing their findings, Naughton added: “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”

But events in recent years have proved that disregarding facts in favour of wild theories can have a significant impact on national and international government policy.

“Whatever else you think of Trump, he is a born conspiracy theorist. Trump was a kind of catalyst, in that somehow his election had the effect of mainstreaming conspiracy theories,” Naughton continued.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, conspiracy theories don’t make people feel any better, Professor Douglas told Harper’s.

“Rather than decreasing uncertainty, research suggests that conspiracy theories actually increase it,” she explained. “The same goes for feelings of powerlessness and disillusionment. People might look to [fake news] to try to gain a sense of power and trust, but instead they feel worse because it feeds into their fear.”

Viren Swami, a professor at Anglia Ruskin University and expert in the psychology of conspiracy theories, says that this feeling of powerlessness can have damaging and potentially lethal results.

“Conspiracy theories give people a sense of agency at a time when they lack control. So, if I’m at home self-isolating and I’m anxious and fearful and disconnected from the wider world, a conspiracy theory can help to personify the problem,” Swami told the magazine.

“Suddenly, I have someone to blame, whether it be a Chinese laboratory worker or the American government. The problem with this is that instead of feeling anxious, I now have permission to act, to do something. And that can led to anything from a spike in xenophobia to people believing absurd and potentially very dangerous false medical advice.”

Indeed, the FBI  has identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat, according to a pre-coronavirus intelligence bulletin seen by Yahoo! News.

The internal document, dated May 2019, warned that such theories “very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts”.

The 2020 presidential election was likely to further fuel the dangerous trend, the bulletin added.

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