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Why have conspiracy theories been so widespread during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Misinformation about the origin, spread, and treatment of the novel coronavirus has proliferated online ever since the first days of the pandemic, spreading widely on social media. An April survey of more than 2,000 people found that one in five Canadians believed that the Chinese government engineered the novel coronavirus in a lab, and nearly one in ten believed that the pandemic is a way for Bill Gates to implant people with microchips. Of course, neither of these claims has any basis in fact, but their popularity has nonetheless exploded online, with social media posts in support of these ideas racking up countless likes and shares. 

In the beginning of the pandemic, before we had an abundance of reliable, well-communicated  research on the virus, the spread of misinformation online could be considered somewhat understandable. But as the months have passed and data and public health recommendations have become more clear, misinformation has nonetheless continued to thrive. This begs the question: Why are conspiracy theories still so popular?

Conducted by researchers with the Vox Pop Labs COVID-19 Monitor, the April survey found that certain characteristics seemed to be linked to a belief in conspiracy theories, including, significantly, where respondents got their news. Canadians who got their COVID-19 news from social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit were more likely to believe in conspiracies than those who had never visited these sites for news content. Unlike reputable news publications, the information being shared on social media is not necessarily reliable or fact-checked, leading to confusion for readers and a higher risk of believing misinformation. 

A study published in Psychological Science highlighted the ways that social media can shape our beliefs by creating an online environment where the number of likes and shares a post has can distract us from considering the accuracy of a particular source. When a post receives attention online, readers might be more inclined to assume that the post is true, despite it containing inaccurate information.

How our social media feeds are set up could also be working against us. The way that social media feeds tend to mix information that requires us to think critically about accuracy (like COVID-19-related theories) with content that does not require much critical thinking (like vacation photos shared by friends) may lead users to “habituate to a lower level of accuracy consideration” while online, the study says. 

Tied to the issue of social media is the way that politicians like Donald Trump have been able to use digital platforms to pursue dangerous political goals. Trump has used Twitter to spread racist ideas surrounding the virus, referring to it as the “Chinese virus” even as Asian Americans were targeted by discrimination — especially in the early days of the pandemic. When Black Lives Matter protests sprang up across the country, the president used his platform to target and demonize protestors. And, more recently, Trump tweeted out a video that supported the disproven idea that hydroxychloroquine could be used to cure COVID-19.

These tweets have a direct effect on the president’s supporters. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review found that Trump supporters were taking the president’s lead when it came to facts surrounding the virus in a kind of “top-down” model of information spread. “As Trump initially trivialized COVID-19, individuals who looked to him for guidance followed suit to a greater extent than those who did not,” the study stated.

The politicization of public health recommendations, like mask-wearing, has served to radically increase misinformation in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. An apparent disagreement between two competing authorities — what the president and his allies have claimed and what public health experts across the world have claimed — makes distinguishing between accurate and inaccurate information all the more difficult. The US — currently home to more cases of coronavirus than any other country in the world — has become an example of what happens when conspiracy theories are left unchecked and allowed to infect policy decisions on a national level. 

Still, not all hope is lost. There are numerous organizations that are working to combat COVID-19 misinformation online through fact-checking initiatives, including Snopes, Politifact, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Walrus. And experts say that there are strategies social media companies can use to help reduce the spread of misinformation online, such as “nudging” users to consider the accuracy of the sources they’re reading before sharing. 

Some social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, have been experimenting with adding accuracy warnings on certain posts related to the pandemic. However, critics argue much of their efforts have been inadequate as misinformation remains on the platforms, sometimes even after being debunked by fact-checkers.  

The short-term outlook for mitigating misinformation online unfortunately does not look promising. With the U.S. president himself being flagged by Twitter for sharing inaccurate information to his over 84 million followers, the real solutions to combating misinformation will need to be much larger and wide-ranging than what we’ve seen so far. With the number of cases of COVID-19 continuing to increase worldwide, figuring out how to address this problem is quite literally a matter of life and death.