A Perfect Storm?

Jan 19, 2021 —

As many commentators have noted (here, here, and here), the coronavirus pandemic seems to have produced a “perfect storm” of misinformation and conspiracy theories. In this blog post, we will assess whether this claim is plausible, weighing up the competing arguments and evidence.

First, the sceptical view which sees disinformation and conspiracy theories as fairly constant over time, despite how it might seem in the midst of a global crisis. The political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent found that belief in conspiracy theories—as represented by letters to the editor in newspapers—has remained fairly constant throughout American history, with the only two significant surges of popular conspiracism occurring in the 1890s (with Populist attacks on big corporations) and the 1950s (with fears about communism). They argued that belief in conspiracy theories does not seem to have increased in any significant way with the coming of the internet, although their book was published in 2014, before the full flourishing of social media. Uscinski and others have even suggested that the internet should in theory curb the rise of conspiracy theories, because it makes easily and widely available the information needed for debunking the theories. Alternatively, the argument goes, conspiracy theories over time will tend to fade away online, because the “echo chamber” effect should mean that they remain confined within closed social groups, and don’t spill out into the mainstream. The cultural historian Michael Butter who has examined conspiracy theories in a longer historical context notes that they might not be any more influential than in the past, even if they are now more visible. The reason for Butter’s observation is that before the twentieth century interpreting historical events as the result of a conspiracy was a legitimate—even sophisticated—way of understanding the world. But as conspiracy theories came to be stigmatized as form of knowledge (roughly after the rejection of McCarthyism in the US at the tail end of the 1950s), they became less influential in terms of mainstream politics, albeit more prominent in countercultural circles.

There is a lot of sense in these warnings not to believe the hype that the internet has changed everything, which often underpin discussions about a supposedly unprecedented rise of conspiracism in the current pandemic. Conspiracy theories have a long and complex history in many societies, and there are no available metrics by which to easily compare whether conspiracism is more widespread or influential than in previous historical moments. Yet the coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought conspiracy theories to the forefront of public attention in a particularly striking way. At the very least, conspiracy theories are no longer quickly dismissed by academic researchers or media pundits as merely wacky, fringe beliefs of little consequence to society as a whole. Part of the reason is that the mainstream media has begun to take the problem of online conspiracism seriously. We see this, for example, in the BBC’s appointment of a specialist disinformation reporter, or the outpouring of newspaper and magazine articles during the pandemic on the dangers of conspiracy theories about coronavirus, or the many pieces giving advice on how to talk to loved ones who have gone down the rabbit hole of conspiracy belief, or the increasing focus on the responsibility of social media platforms to change their recommendation algorithms in order to stop fuelling conspiracism. These concerns have become increasingly common over the last couple of years, although we need to remember there have been previous episodes of public anxiety about the spread of conspiracy theories (think of the alarm about the rise of white supremacist militias in the 1990s, for example). Indeed, the popularisation of the very term “conspiracy theory” to describe a potentially harmful worldview can be traced to anxieties among sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s that the world was in danger of being again seduced by the kind of authoritarian populism that had led to the mass political hysteria and atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s.

Although the prominence of conspiracy theories is not unprecedented, there are nevertheless good reasons to think that the coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm. It is the first truly global event that has taken place in the age of widespread social media. Previous epidemics, such as SARS and Ebola, were also accompanied by the viral spread of conspiracy theories online, but were nowhere near as all-encompassing as the current pandemic. Likewise, the AIDS epidemic gave rise to a significant strand of conspiracy thinking that caused much harm, but the theories spread more slowly, and less widely, and seldom in the full glare of public concern. Indeed, historians have shown how one of the main HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories—that the virus was a bioweapon created in a US army lab—was initially spread as part of a Soviet and East German Cold War disinformation campaign, with the first appearance of the narrative in a comparatively obscure pro-Soviet newspaper from India, and then painstakingly cultivated through a network of radio programs, journalists and pseudo-scientific studies. With the coronavirus pandemic, however, conspiracy theories have spread globally at great speed, even if they have also been adapted to fit local narratives.

The pandemic has been marked by both a lack and a glut of information. On the one hand, and particularly in the early weeks and months when little was known about SARS-CoV-2, conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation rushed in to fill the “data deficit” as many people around the world understandably sought to make sense of a deeply disturbing and rapidly evolving situation. On the other hand, the pandemic has also seen an overabundance of information, both accurate and unreliable, creating what the Director-General of the WHO termed an “infodemic”. In addition to the well-meaning as well as the malicious spreading of misinformation online, the information environment quickly became overloaded with scientific information, especially in the form of academic journal article pre-prints. Although a perfectly normal part of the regular process of peer review, during the pandemic these pre-prints—produced at a volume and velocity that is highly unusual—have often been picked up by journalists and social media influencers, quickly circulating provisional findings as major revelations to an audience often ill-equipped to interpret them. The bombardment of these sometimes contradictory reports has made conspiracy theories all the more appealing, because they offer a compelling, overarching explanation for everything that is happening.

As the research of this project is beginning to demonstrate, social media and other digital platforms and e-commerce sites have played a significant role in spreading conspiracist misinformation during the pandemic. Some of this has been the result of bottom-up viral sharing, but a significant part has been led by influencers and those with a pre-existing network of followers, in some cases helped by an established network of right-wing funders (as appears to the case with the Plandemic video, for example). However, we need to also remember that social media is not the only way that misinformation spreads: research has shown that false narratives are still more likely to become dominant when they are promoted by politicians and celebrities, most often through more traditional forms of mass media such as television, with social media playing only a secondary role in amplification. Fox News can be as important as Facebook in spreading mal-information.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether social media is mainly to blame for the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the pandemic, we can point to other factors that have contributed to the perfect storm. The lack of transparency—at times wilfully misleading—on the part of the Chinese authorities meant that the outset of what was to become a global health crisis was shrouded in uncertainty and suspicion. This was not helped by President Trump amplifying speculation that the CIA had intelligence that the virus was created in or escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. While it is possible that that the local or national authorities in China covered up their knowledge of the origins of the virus (a team from the WHO are currently in China investigating this story), the lack of clear and transparent information in those crucial early weeks meant that conspiracy theories inevitably flooded in to fill the data void. Health officials and politicians in both China and the West initially insisted that the outbreak was under control, and that it would not be as serious as the SARS epidemic in 2002-2004 that killed 773 people. Over-confident reassurances can quickly lead to an escalating distrust of all future pronouncements on the part of the authorities. The thinking goes: if they were so wrong about that, why should we trust them about anything else?

We also need to recognise that the virus itself led to an understandable sense of anxiety and paranoia. Even if the scales are now beginning to tip back towards scepticism (so many discussions on social media about lockdown measures now quickly descend into a pile-on from those keen to trot out misleading and erroneous statistics about a disease that supposedly has a “99.9% survival rate”), in the early weeks of the epidemic many watched with increasing alarm as hospitals in Wuhan province and then northern Italy quickly became overwhelmed with the number of people requiring intensive care, just as the individual patients themselves had quickly been overwhelmed by a disease that leaves sufferers unable to breathe. The disease can be terrifying and, especially in the early days of the outbreak, confounded scientists trying to understand how it attacks the body’s immune system. The response to the disease has also been frightening in many ways, leaving many people understandably afraid that their individual liberty has been curtailed and their livelihoods made precarious. The introduction of drastic lockdown measures has often confounded many people’s common sense, especially in the early days of the pandemic when very few people personally knew anyone who was sick. Many have experienced a devastating sense of a loss of control over their lives, which, as psychologists have shown, is a common contributing factor in the turn to conspiracy theories.

Although some of the conspiracy theories surrounding the coronavirus pandemic have been dismissed as crackpot, for the most part they speak to genuine questions and concerns. The policy choices involved in lockdowns and the rapid roll-out of a comparatively new and untested class of vaccines, for example, are cause for legitimate public debate. The problem with conspiracy theories, however, is that they make justifiable challenges to government decisions too easy to dismiss as irrational. Like many conspiracy theories, the ones surrounding the coronavirus pandemic often contain a kernel of truth, even if they go on to develop wildly exaggerated conclusions. One of the most persistent and prominent conspiracy theories, for example, is the claim that Bill Gates is planning to use vaccinations to microchip and control the world’s population (the details of the ultimate purpose of this evil plan tend to get a little hazy beyond this bare-bones summary). This notion might sound crazy—how can vaccines contain a microchip?!—but it has its roots in a genuine scientific project. The Gates Foundation asked researchers at Rice University in Texas to develop a solution to a problem often encountered by mass vaccination campaigns in developing nations, namely the difficulty of maintaining accurate records of immunisation among poor, rural (and sometimes nomadic) communities. The solution proposed by the researchers was to deliver vaccines via a patch containing dissolvable microneedles that would leave a tiny readable, florescent trace beneath the skin that could be scanned by a mobile phone. This hi-tech solution to a problem that medical workers in the field commonly encounter has its own logistical and ethical dilemmas, but for those already disposed to fear the worst about globalist organisations plotting to institute terrifying control of the world’s population it rang alarm bells. Likewise conspiracy theorists have latched onto accounts of pandemic preparedness exercises that took place before the outbreak of Covid-19, most notably Event 201, organised by Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security (in conjunction with the Gates Foundation and others) in October 2019. Although conspiracy theories regularly reinterpret coincidences as evidence of deliberate planning, the severity of the coronavirus pandemic has meant that these kind of anticipatory events have been imbued with out-sized significance. After all, the alternative situation is conceivably worse—what if scientists and health experts had never done any scenario-planning for the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, given that zoonotic transmission of diseases between species is becoming more common with the encroachment of humans on natural habitats, coupled with the increasing global interconnectedness enabled by mass air travel. (Less plausibly, conspiracy theorists have also highlighted Dean Koontz’s novel from 1981, The Eyes of Darkness, that contains some uncanny parallels with the current outbreak, including a passing reference to a viral bioweapon that is called [in the 1989 revised edition] Wuhan-400. Unlike the real-life SARS-CoV-2, the fictional virus has a mortality rate of 100%.)

To the casual observer, it can seem that the coronavirus pandemic has given spontaneous rise to a raft of conspiracy theories. But the reality is that most of the building blocks of these conspiracy theories, and the communities that have promoted them, existed long before the outbreak of Covid-19. Conspiracy-minded fears about 5G and vaccines pre-date the pandemic, and they were adapted to fit the specific circumstances of the crisis. Likewise the pandemic has produced an intensification of existing trends within online conspiracism, rather than the explosion of a completely unprecedented fixation with conspiracy explanations. For example, prominent conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones already had a lucrative side-line in promoting snake-oil cures such as Miracle Mineral Solution and colloidal silver (indeed, it appears that Jones only really began to make serious money from this conspiracy theory platform when he started selling these alternative health products). In a similar fashion, existing channels of disinformation (especially those promoting a pro-Kremlin agenda) have been of concern for a number of years. In effect, existing conspiracy theorists and promoters of misinformation have capitalized on the fear and information deficits and overloads created by the pandemic to spread their ideas and their wares. Researchers have shown how, for example, right-wing hate groups have taken advantage of the pandemic and the accompanying wave of interest in conspiracy narratives to recruit new followers to their cause. In this regard, the coronavirus crisis is less a perfect storm than a perfect opportunity for those who have long claimed to have worked out What Is Really Going On to reach new audiences.

Many conspiracy theorists have cynically jumped on the coronavirus bandwagon to promote their existing pet explanations to new recruits who are willing to entertain overarching narratives that promise to make sense of the global pandemic and the accompanying lockdown measures. In addition to conspiracy theories about globalist elites such as Bill Gates and George Soros supposedly planning mass control or even genocide (theories that are often antisemitic at heart), QAnon advocates have slotted the pandemic into their tale of an apocalyptic battle between the righteous patriots and the evil forces of the Deep State in cahoots with Satan-worshipping elitist paedophiles. The more the pandemic seems to be throwing society into chaos, the more QAnoners feel vindicated in their millenarian anticipation of a “Great Awakening” that will lead to the “Coming Storm.” In a similar vein, conspiracy theorists have highlighted the idea of the Great Reset (an existing, vaguely eco-themed road-map of development goals outline by the World Economic Forum) as evidence that the pandemic had been planned all along by globalists as part of a sinister plot for depopulation—a conspiracy idea that itself has been around since the original Club of Rome think-tank discussions in the early 1970s of the perceived problem of planetary overpopulation. The coronavirus pandemic has necessitated a global response that inevitably involved globalist institutions such as the WHO (especially because of the lack of US leadership, not least with Trump’s withdrawal of US funding from the organisation), at the same time as conjuring up understandable fears about “foreigners” as vectors of disease. Existing conspiracy-mongering about globalist institutions and invisible alien enemies have had much to feed on in the current crisis. In short, the coronavirus pandemic has not caused a sudden, unanticipated rush of conspiracy theorising, but it has given an urgency and prominence to existing narratives that—in a process familiar to historians of conspiracy theories—have been adapted for new purposes.

It is becoming clear, however, that during the pandemic conspiracy thinking has spread considerably beyond existing conspiracy communities and channels. If the hope of some researchers was that conspiracy theories will tend to fade away on social media because they remain confined to restrictive echo chambers, the corona crisis has shown that conspiracy theories have gained far more visible mainstream attention (even if the percentage of committed believers is not significantly higher than pre-pandemic rates of conspiracy belief). One reason for this is the simple fact that with the widespread lockdowns many people have had a lot of time on their hands. Without regular forms of in-person social interaction (that can tend to lessen the effects of online echo chambers), it has made it more likely that people will disappear down the rabbit-hole of online extremism. In the early months of the pandemic in particular, there were many anecdotal reports in the media of “ordinary” people coming across conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation through neighbourhood WhatsApp and Facebook groups to an extent that had not happened before. More worryingly, the recommendation algorithms of platforms such as Facebook have continued to nudge people towards more extreme pages and groups. Of course, merely encountering a conspiracy narrative on social media does not mean that the recipient will inevitably fall prey to the virus of misinformation (as we’ll explain in a future blog post, it is important to treat the term “infodemic” as a thought-provoking metaphor, rather than a direct analogy between the transmission of viruses and ideas). But, as social psychology researchers have shown, repeatedly encountering false ideas—even when they are being debunked—makes it more likely that some people will end up believing them.

In the last couple of years social media platforms—mainly in response to adverse publicity—have made some efforts to adjust their recommendation algorithms to dampen the promotion of harmful conspiracy theories. Some platforms (e.g. YouTube) had already begun in January 2019 to deplatform and/or demonetise some of the more extreme forms of conspiracism in response to mass shootings, and the process of labelling and deplatforming of potentially harmful materials, especially relating to health information, has quickened pace during the pandemic, along with the active promotion of medical information from authoritative sources. Although the platforms have had some measure of success in these endeavours (certainly as measured by the platforms’ own reports), the viral proliferation of conspiracy theories and other forms of “problematic information” during the pandemic indicates that the issue is more pervasive than these optimistic reports suggest. (One of the difficulties with social media research is the lack of transparency and independent verification by the platforms; although researchers can use Facebook’s own Crowdtangle tool to identify the most engaged with posts, there is no easy way to establish exactly what individual users encounter on their timelines.) For example, although YouTube acted swiftly to deplatform the Plandemic video, it reappeared repeatedly on both YouTube and other less restrictive venues such as BitChute. Likewise, although YouTube made their recommendation algorithm less likely to promote conspiracist content, research has shown that people are coming to the content via direct links in for example Facebook posts, rather than using the search or recommendation functions in YouTube.

What has made the information problem surrounding the pandemic far worse is the existing distrust of the mainstream media and scientific experts. A central component of recent conspiracy theories such as QAnon is not merely that there is a secret plot behind the contemporary events, but that the mainstream media is itself part of the cabal and needs to be actively rejected. The rise of populist political movements in the UK, the US and elsewhere in the last decade has been accompanied by a distrust of scientists, doctors and academics, driven in part by an understandable sense of resentment at neglect of the working class by the governing technocratic elite. Conspiracy theories often attract the cult of the amateur, and rely on ordinary people becoming convinced that their insights (“Do your own research!”) are as valid as those of the experts, coupled with a naïve faith in the power of individual experience and visual observation (“Seeing is believing!”). It is in this light that we can make some sense of the #filmyourhospital craze accompanying the first lockdown (and again now in January 2021), as people stuck at home and only able to access the world through media became convinced that amateur video clips showing comparatively empty parking lots and even hospital corridors gave the lie to the “official version” of events that spoke of intensive care units being overwhelmed. Many of the pieces of misinformation and conspiracy theories that spread virally in the early weeks of the pandemic on platforms such as WhatsApp shared similar narrative framing devices that emphasised the authentic, personal connected to the supposed revealed truth: “My cousin who is a nurse…”

Although trends such as the #filmyourhospital and “my cousin who is a nurse” narratives emphasised their rejection of authorities, one of the most significant reasons that conspiracy theories have proliferated in the pandemic is the role of Trump as a superspreader of mal-information. From the notion that the pandemic is a hoax to claims about the miracle curing properties of hydroxychloroquine and bleach, Trump has fuelled the spread of conspiracism. Of course, Trump positions himself as the mouthpiece of the ordinary citizen, often relying on circumlocutions such as “A lot of people are saying” to both avoid accountability and emphasise that he is in tune with the “truth” being revealed by lay people rather than experts such as Anthony Fauci, whom he has repeatedly undermined. With an authoritarian populist promoter of false information such as Trump in charge, the pandemic could not have come at a worse time, with many of the president’s supporters actively primed to discount both expert knowledge and the mainstream media, and willing to embrace an alternative reality in which the pandemic is a hoax and the election rigged. Moreover, the increasing polarisation of politics (in both the US and the UK) has meant that a sizeable minority of people are willing to cling to dubious propaganda narratives because they bolster their firmly entrenched worldview and sense of identity. In this regard, polarising political events like Brexit, the Black Lives Matter protests and the US election have exacerbated the sense of people living in parallel realities. There are, of course, other political factors in the US and the UK that have made the pandemic worse than it might otherwise have been, from the inadequate and uneven provision of healthcare and welfare, to the incompetence, cronyism and corruption of the cabinet in the UK predicated on ideological commitment to the Brexit cause rather than talent. Coupled with the intensifying feedback loops of online echo chambers, the political atmosphere of extreme partisanship and failing infrastructure has made the infodemic surrounding Covid-19 even more extreme.

Whilst the adaptation of existing conspiracy narratives to current events is not new, the coronavirus pandemic has produced a particularly pronounced convergence of different conspiracy communities. This has created a “conspiracy singularity”, a sum that is considerably more of a problem than its constituent parts. Divergent groups have rallied together under the broad banner of fears about the erosion of liberty and questioning of authority during the pandemic, including both evangelical, Trump-supporting die-hard QAnon adherents and alt-right, antisemitic conspiracy theorists; both the New Age vaccine-hesitant and the more libertarian anti-vaxxers, along with those suspicious of Big Pharma; and both those quick to blame China for allegedly creating a bioweapon, and those already convinced that new technologies like 5G are part of a concerted plot to turn humans into slaves. Their conflicting ideological positions and differing social backgrounds has created odd bedfellows in the conspiracy milieu during the pandemic. As much as it has the potential to create echo chambers and filter bubbles, social media has also played a key role in bridging the gap between these various communities. It makes it easier to establish new connections and turn a loose collection of individually fringe beliefs into a sizeable minority who identify themselves as challenging received wisdom and the status quo. They find vindication in seeing themselves as part of a larger collective, even if they disagree with the specific content of some of the beliefs. Opinion polls indicate that roughly a quarter of people in the US and the UK share conspiracy-infused beliefs about the virus and the public health response to it. Conspiracy theories often emerge out of an existing, all-encompassing world view, rather than a single piece of misinformation that can be easily corrected through fact-checking and debunking. Subsequent, unrelated events (e.g. the US election) provide “confirmation” for an existing theory, reinforcing the conviction that what we are witnessing is not an unfortunate mix of natural and man-made problems but, a vast, concerted plan to remove our liberties. With QAnon and other conspiracy theories relying on an apocalyptic narrative that the world as we know it is in danger of imminent collapse, the imposition of severe restrictions on personal freedoms “proves” the prophecies about a “Coming Storm,” while supposed revelations about election fraud in turn “prove” that Covid-19 is a “plandemic.” Conversely, those who oppose lockdowns and mask-wearing can easily be drawn into the realm of conspiracy theories that then provide an all-encompassing justification for a stance that might otherwise seem merely selfish or ornery.

We need to be careful, then, not to utter dire warnings about the pandemic having created an unprecedented explosion of conspiracy thinking, especially on social media. But we can nevertheless recognise that there has been a coming together of various technological, political and social factors that have contributed to something resembling a perfect storm of conspiracy theory and misinformation.

This post is published under the terms of the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence.