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← Covid-19: the psychology of conspiracy theories

Guardian Podcast
Science Weekly -Psychology
Presented by Ian Sample and produced by David Waters and Madeleine Finlay
Tue 5 May 2020 05.00 BST

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Mostrare Revisione 20 creata 10/13/2020 da Jen Prince.

  1. [Music]
    Intro: The Guardian
  2. Welcome to Science Weekly.
  3. We're following the Covid-19 outbreak and
  4. exploring some of the scientific questions
    that have come out of it.
  5. In today's episode, we are looking
    at conspiracy theories:
  6. Now, many people are getting
    their information about coronavirus
  7. through social media.
  8. But not everything that's shared online
    can be trusted.
  9. 5G mast on fire. **** the 5G!
  10. It lowers your immunity
    and runs people down!
  11. The coronavirus pandemic is opening up
    weird new horizons
  12. for online conspiracy theorists.
  13. The virus was bio-engineered in a lab
    by scientists, to be used as a weapon
  14. or a form of population control.
  15. Hi guys, do you know
    what you're doing now?
  16. You're laying 5G. Yes.
    So, you know that kills people?
  17. It absorbs oxygen.
    That's just nonsense!
  18. Dangerous nonsense as well.
  19. 5G was a favourite target
    of conspiracy theorists,
  20. long before the new coronavirus appeared.
    And now,
  21. the myths have just been
    tweaked a bit.
  22. It's not merely an opinion
    or an interesting conspiracy,
  23. it's just bollocks.
  24. So what is it about conspiracy theories
    that makes them so appealing
  25. in a time of crisis?
  26. And how can we best combat them?
  27. I'm Ian Sample, the science editor
    at The Guardian,
  28. and this is Science Weekly.
  29. I'm Dr Daniel Jolley.
  30. I'm a senior lecturer in psychology
    based at Northumbria University
  31. in Newcastle in the UK and my expertise is
    in the psychology of conspiracy theories.
  32. Hi Dan, how are you doing?
  33. I'm doing well
    thanks so much for having me here.
  34. So Dan, let's start with the basics,
  35. what is a conspiracy theory,
    as opposed to misinformation, say?
  36. So the whole difference
    with a conspiracy theory is the idea
  37. that there is a powerful group plotting
    something secret for their own gain.
  38. So something can just be fake, that
    there is no hidden motive behind it.
  39. I mean there is a cardinal difference,
  40. it's pointing the finger
    at a group of people
  41. and blaming them for their wrongdoings,
    blaming them for the virus, for example.
  42. What is it about conspiracy theories,
  43. that makes them so appealing to us?
  44. Well, conspiracy theories in general
    have been shown to arise
  45. in moments of crisis, when we have the
    need to feel in control, to feel certain.
  46. And in these kind of rapid crises
    we feel threatened,
  47. we feel unsure of what is happening,
  48. which is exactly what is happening
    with Covid-19
  49. I always thought that believing
    in conspiracy theories
  50. would make people feel more anxious,
    but it sounds like, actually,
  51. they have the opposite effect.
  52. Well, it's a really interesting
    point there.
  53. People who have this need to feel
    in control,
  54. the influence on them actually may
    just be quite temporal.
  55. They may seem appealing,
    but they're not satisfying.
  56. Could be shown that people who are
    exposed to conspiracy theories
  57. actually have further mistrust
    of those around them.
  58. It actually increases their feeling
    of anxiety.
  59. Often it is because if you don't subscribe
    to one conspiracy belief,
  60. you then start questioning other things,
  61. which means its kind of ramping up
    your mistrust,
  62. and you kind of feel a feeling of
    uncertainty of you living in your society.
  63. So when they emerge in times of crisis,
    they may temporarily
  64. make us feel more secure
    but that will not be long-lasting.
  65. This must be
    a bit of a boom time for you,
  66. as someone who studies conspiracy theories
    I mean, we've seen,
  67. you know, a bunch of them around recently,
    from 5G masts,
  68. man-made viruses coming out of
    Chinese labs. I mean,
  69. what is it about a pandemic
    that seems to drive so many?
  70. Covid-19 is not unique in regards to
    having conspiracy theories bloom about it.
  71. Thinking back to Zika, 2015,
  72. there were conspiracy theories suggesting
    Zika was a man-made weapon.
  73. Zika is a mosquito-transmitted virus
    that has led to travel warnings
  74. in South America and Caribbean countries.
  75. Is Zika caused by
    genetically modified mosquitoes?
  76. We're fact-checking this conspiracy theory
    making the rounds on Facebook.
  77. It's fair that the conspiracy now to
  78. when people are talking about extreme
  79. So when they felt uncertain, they now (??)
    conspiracy theories was more blooming.
  80. And the same thing is happening with
  81. The Trump administration has repeatedly
    pushed the narrative that the Coronavirus
  82. may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory
    in Wuhan, rather than originating with an
  83. animal in a seafood market in Wuhan, which
    is the leading medical theory.
  84. Because the world is definitely chaotic,
    and it offers some kind of tangible
  85. personal group to blame for
    what is happening.
  86. It sounds like, then, that it's
    pretty typical to see conspiracy theories
  87. spring up around any big event.
  88. Do you think we're just seeing more now or
    we're aware of more now, because they're
  89. spreading through social media?
  90. There's no hard data that
    demonstrates that today with the
  91. internet, conspiracy theories are more
    popular. So it may just be us assuming
  92. they are. I think it's important, though,
    to really look into this, and to see the
  93. peril that social media can have. Thinking
    about the 5G conspiracy, it seemed to
  94. emerge from social media, where the
    algorithms and Facebook picked up chatter
  95. with regards to 5G, and brought it into
    the trending. And then, during videos
  96. people in the comments were talking about
    the masts and how one way to stop COVID is
  97. by the masts and pulling them down, etc.
    So that's something that's potentially
  98. quite novel in that that fast interaction
    may have actually sped up the kind of
  99. insurgence of the conspiracy.
    It's a real
  100. interesting problem
  101. with regards to
  102. Facebook and
  103. social media
  104. in general, and how they deal with
    conspiracy theories, because someone's conspiracy
  105. theory is someone's truth, in essence. So
    it's how do we define what a conspiracy
  106. theory is. And indeed, by banning, for
    example, conspiracy theories on platforms
  107. will just reaffirm the suspicions that
    people have, that they're trying to hide
  108. something. So you may actually increase
    people's conspiracy theorizing, because
  109. they are being silenced. So it's that
    balance of insuring there's a space and a
  110. platform for people to have free speech,
    to be able to discuss issues, and to, you
  111. know, question things, which I think is
    important that we question, but then the
  112. balance comes by that things aren't made
    into the trending pages that are not based
  113. on truth. So right now, Facebook and etc.,
    are taking down content that they see to
  114. be inciting violence, and that can
    actually be a hinder to curbing COVID-19,
  115. which is think is a positive first step,
    but it's not going to fix the issue as a
  116. broad issue in the future.

  117. So maybe,
    thinking about the individual as well,
  118. and insuring the individual has the skill
    sets to really ask the questions, but also
  119. evaluate the evidence. So we know those
    people who lack critical thinking
  120. abilities are more likely to believe in
    conspiracy theories, and we also know that
  121. people who in believe in conspiracies is
    because they want to understand

  122. the world, but they're struggling to
    evaluate the evidence. So potentially us
  123. trying to instil those skill sets, may
    mean that they're able to resist the

  124. conspiracy narrative. Let's talk a bit
    more about the psychology of people who

  125. believe in conspiracy theories or tend to
    believe in them. Are there characteristics
  126. or personality traits that make people
    maybe more susceptible to these kinds of
  127. theories than others?
  128. There are a range of different needs
    that are met by conspiracy theories,
  129. while there's also kind of a social
    element whereby we want to affirm
  130. ourselves and also the groups that we
    belong in. And interestingly, research in
  131. America has found that in regards to
    politics, the conspiracy theories switch
  132. depending on who is in power. So it's very
    much a prophecies in play here, where
  133. you're just affirming your identity, the
    others, those are the ones who are
  134. conspiring, and that can change depending
    on the context.
  135. It sounds like some other sort of
    traits might come into play as well,
  136. around how people see themselves, their
    social self-image, but also whether
  137. people have been sort of marginalized in
    the past?
  138. Absolutely. So, research has found that
    being a narcissist is more predictively
  139. believing in conspiracy theories,
    and also, it has been shown that people
  140. who are from disadvantaged groups,
  141. because if you have received
    discrimination in the past,
  142. you may be more likely to perceive
    that people are out to get you.
  143. Because once upon a time, maybe they were.
  144. So prior experiences may also play a role
    in making you more susceptible.
  145. And then, when you're in an environment
    that increases your uncertainty,
  146. increases your threat, like COVID-19,
  147. you may be more susceptible
    to subscribe to these conspiracy theories.
  148. And indeed, a consistent finding
    in the literature is
  149. that if you believe in one conspiracy,
    you believe in many others.
  150. Also, interestingly,
    researchers find that
  151. you can believe in mutually exclusive
    conspiracy theories. Because, it's all
  152. based around this world view that
    conspiracy theories in the world. So that
  153. means that someone may believe that the
    virus was human-made, but also believing
  154. it is caused by 5G. Whilst these two
    things can't necessarily happen at the
  155. same time, it's in this process if you
    feel distrust, of society, of people who
  156. we see to be in power, you can subscribe
    to these ideas. [Music]
  157. When I've seen conspiracy theorists
    talking about their beliefs, it's clear
  158. that there's a real urge to pull together
    strands of evidence, and to collect
  159. evidence, and say, pull together these
    sort of desperate things, and many of them
  160. seem to see themselves as like, the real
    critical thinkers, but I'm wondering what
  161. kind of biases are coming into play there,
    that are actually within those people, to
  162. make them believe these kinds of theories.
  163. (DJ) One of the biases is confirmation
    bias, that we're all susceptible to.
  164. This is the idea that we only really
    listen to evidence that supports our prior
  165. beliefs. Things that go against it, that
    discredit our beliefs, we ignore.
  166. There's also biases based around
    personality bias, with COVID-19, it's such
  167. a large event, worldwide, to explain this
    as something from animals doesn't really
  168. make sense. But to explain this as a
    conspiracy where it was human-made,
  169. the proportionality matches the cause,
    it all kind of fits together.
  170. So, we can, in situations where these
    events arise, be more drawn to conspiracy
  171. narratives. We then stay in our echo
    chambers in our online world.
  172. It can be tough debating and arguing
    with people who believe in conspiracy
  173. theories, and okay, some of them are
    harmless, but some of them really aren't.
  174. I mean, as someone who really studies
    them, do you have a sense of how best
  175. we can combat them, the ones that are
  176. Interventions are really challenging,
    but of course, as you say, they're really
  177. important, so potentially targeting the
    general population, and targeting those
  178. who are hardened conspiracy theorists,
    may be slightly different.
  179. So for example, we know that using counter
    arguments, giving people facts, can reduce
  180. belief in conspiracy theories. But, if you
    harbor a conspiracy belief, and you see
  181. some counter material from the government,
    you are going to discredit that, because
  182. of your confirmation bias. So indeed, for
    others, it may be having people become
  183. trusted messengers, where you're not
    aggressive, but instead, talk to them
  184. about their beliefs, get them to really
    kind of think hard about the evidence
  185. that they are, you know, really kind of
    suggesting is the be and end all, and
  186. that maybe that kind of thinking process
    and get them to re-evaluate may start
  187. changing their beliefs. Of course, this
    I'm sure would work for the general
  188. population as well, so I think with
    ensuring that the landscape on Twitter, on
  189. Facebook is full of facts is really
    important, but then still acknowledging
  190. that those who are on the hardened end
    of the conspiracy theorizing may distrust
  191. that straight away. So it's definitely a
    challenge, but I think it's important to
  192. really evaluate.
  193. Dan, finally, how do you think you
    fair in all of this? I mean, do you feel
  194. you're immune to conspiracy theories that
    you can tell pretty much on contact
  195. whether something's real or BS?
  196. It's really difficult to tell the
    truth from the untruthful, from the fake
  197. news, but the conspiracy's always based
    around pointing the finger at those in
  198. authority, and suggesting that they are
    conspiring. I try and have trust in the
  199. gatekeepers, where I also trust the
    journalists, to ask the questions, and
  200. the conspiracy theories that have been
    proven to be true, have always been driven
  201. by journalism. So, having the trust in our
    society that if a conspiracy is occuring,
  202. it will come out by these natural
  203. Wonderful stuff. Dan, thank you so
    much for joining us.
  204. Pleasure, thank you so much.
  205. Thanks to Dan for joining me this
    week. As we continue to follow the
  206. COVID-19 outbreak, we'd love to keep
    hearing your questions. You can send them
  207. in via the form we've set up, just head
    over to theguardian.com/covid19questions,
  208. that's all one word.
    And also thank those who support
  209. as listeners.
  210. In times like this, trusted news is more
    important than ever, and here at the
  211. Guardian we are 100% committed to
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  212. to help us do that, we need your support.
    To find out more, please go to
  213. theguardian.com/supportpodcast, again
    all one word.
  214. Look after yourselves and stay well,
    see you back here soon.
  215. [Outro]
    For more great podcasts from the Guardian,
  216. just go to theguardian.com/podcasts.