Conspiracy theories are a plague of our time that has been gaining strength, particularly in countries where the citizen’s trust in authorities and institutions is low. This plague spreads thanks to the crises (economic, health, political) and popularity of the social media, where anyone can easily find people with similar views and the most unbelievable narratives of today’s world.
Before the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, one could see believing in an alternative reality as harmless lunacy. The health crisis has shown that if such theories spread, they directly influence people’s behaviors.
They, in turn, believing in conspiracies, could be a real danger to public health, state security or public order. Their actions could go against the foundations of democracy; such people can also be easily used for undemocratic political goals.
Conspiracy thinking makes it difficult to create strong interpersonal relationships and bring about violence, just like in the case of followers of the American QAnon movement, which FBI qualified in 2019 as a potential terrorist threat. Facebook groups created by people believing in QAnon have been deleted for the very reason: inciting and celebrating violence.
We are faced with a growing socio-political problem, and counteracting it requires broad, systemic actions, tackling the reasons for people’s susceptibility to this kind of theories, not only their circulation.
The World in Order and Psychological Comfort Guaranteed
Conspiracy theory is a particular kind of narrative that is meant to explain a certain event, situation or phenomenon in contradiction to the commonly accepted, official version. It is based on the belief (not always stated outright) that the most important information about public matters is hidden due to secret dealings of people or groups, which cooperate to gain benefits for themselves, against the community’s interests.
Beliefs circulated in this way are not corroborated by any believable evidence, although they can be expressed by perceived authorities.
Why is this kind of narrative so attractive, especially in the time of crisis? Because it puts the world into the order following the rules known by the audience, and as a result diminishes the feeling of uncertainty, which is hard to bear for long periods.
Although they are sometimes unbelievable, they (seemingly) bring back the feeling of security – even when they aim to prove that there is a pedophile conspiracy of the world leaders against the humanity or prophesize a war with an alien race of reptilians. The audience feels secure because they feel that the rules of such a world are familiar; it’s easy to establish who is good and who is bad; the enemy is visible and has a name.
Such explanations would lose their appeal if citizens could trust the state and its institutions in the time of crisis. But they do not, they prefer to search for something to help them deal with the situation on their own. The popularity of alternative narratives also distinctly indicates a crisis of trust in authorities.
Conspiracy theories have been known for centuries; the concept itself was introduced in the second half of the 20th century, and most of the research was done in its last years. At the time, it seemed that it is a marginal phenomenon, concerning small groups and having no influence on societies as a whole.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic changed the situation. It turned out that social media platforms are a perfect tool for spreading stories about alleged conspiracies. This is further enabled by the development of the so-called filter bubble, which means the creation of closed communities with people of similar views.
People who disagree with the opinions of the majority are easily isolated and removed. Those who are left, talk only with like-minded users of the platform, which on the one hand gives them psychological comfort, but on the other hand prevents them from verifying their beliefs.
Social Media Makes it Easier to Live in an Alternative Reality
The connection between the spread of conspiracy theories and social media was analyzed in 2020 by researchers from King’s College London. They ran three online questionnaires among the British. They have shown a significant correlation between belief in Covid-19 conspiracies and using social media as the main source of information about the virus.
It was the greatest in respondents who pointed to YouTube as their source of information; Facebook took second place. Using those platforms was, in most cases, linked to two narratives: doubts as to the existence of coronavirus and belief that the symptoms of Covid-19 are actually the symptoms of an illness triggered by 5G technology.
The data on the growing number of people under the influence of alternative narratives comes from monitoring social media platforms. During spring lockdowns, researchers from Pakistani Islamia University of Bahawalpur have noted an increase of 20% up to 87% (depending on the world region) in the use of those platforms.
In Italy, which in March of 2020 was deep in the pandemic crisis, about 46 thousand Twitter posts with imprecise or incorrect information were published every day of that month. Many stories appeared at that time. For example, the pandemic was triggered by 5G technology, mosquitoes carry coronavirus, and to recover from it, one has to drink cow’s urine or just a glass of hot water.
On the 20th of April 2020, Belgium’s State Security Service published a report presenting conspiracy theories circulating in the country. ‘Knights of Flanders’, a far-right group, spread a narrative according to which coronavirus was created from the flu vaccine.
Another far-right group claimed that Covid-19 is spread by Muslims immigrants. According to fake news, Covid-19 positive Muslims were instructed to “cough in the faces of nonbelievers”. Of course, the means of spreading such content was primarily social media.
Fake News Caused Panic
However, at the beginning of the pandemic in Europe and the USA, fake news and conspiracy theories were spread not only through open communication channels – but many were also circulated using Internet messengers or slightly forgotten SMS’s – short telephone messages. They were in the form of the so-called chain letters, so the author was unknown.
Who is writing, published an article with findings showing  that messages with very similar content were sent in the same way in at least three countries: the USA, Poland and Ireland, at a similar time – between 13th and 20th of March. Their structure was similar to that of conspiracy narratives; they usually mentioned the ‘one in the know’, who knows more than others and warns against coming threat.
Those in the know were – depending on the version and the country – high-ranking officers, friends with access to classified information, a well-informed journalist, a member of secret service or just a high-ranking official. It was often suggested that very soon the army will enter cities and citizens will be cut off from the world.
Such messages, sent at the time when citizens were most disoriented, usually after the first lockdown was introduced at any given country, could spark real panic, as well as escalating behaviors such as the excessive purchase of food or withdrawal of money from cash machines.
Although structurally similar to conspiracy theories, this kind of fake news did not generate broad narratives about the world. This is in contrast to the most widely spread theories regarding the origins of Covid-19. The first story, for example, that COVID-19 was created in Chinese laboratory in Wuhan, gave rise to others, adjusted to current events. This way, the crisis reality has been explained.
According to the analysis from EU StratCom TaskForce, in the spring 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic in Europe, the most popular narratives in the European Union were as follows:
- the story about Bill Gates, in which he has planned the pandemic and now wants to implant people to control them;
- the narrative about the virus being a biological weapon, created by the USA (or NATO) to depopulate the world.
In this first phase of coronavirus pandemic the misinformation about the illness came from varied sources, including politicians, world leaders, celebrities, doctors, scientists, conspiracy theorists and, of course, Internet users.
This kind of conspiracy theory was popular even in Africa, even though this continent hasn’t suffered from the pandemic as much as other parts of the world. According to the researchers from the Polytechnic Ibadan Department of Mass Communication in Nigeria, some Nigerians believed Covid-19 to be a man-made biological weapon – but Chinese, instead of American.
They found that warnings from the government and media about the threat of coronavirus were exaggerated and manipulated. Those narratives were spread using social media, and Nigerians believed in them because trust in political leaders and traditional media is very low in their country.
This correlation is noticeable worldwide: the lower the trust in political leaders and state structures, the stronger the need to search for information outside of official channels, often resulting in taking conspiracy theories at face value.
Anti-Vaccine Groups Have Grown Stronger
In the next months, pandemic narratives merged with existing theories, especially about the harmfulness of vaccination and 5G technology, and evolved adjusting to the current needs. In late 2020 and early 2021, the most important were anti-vaccine theories and QAnon ideology (popular in the USA).
Anti-vaccine movements are not new, but up until now, they concentrated on the vaccination of children. Covid-19 vaccine presented new opportunities. For example, many narratives appeared that the vaccine is produced from aborted fetuses (this argument is especially significant for Catholics), that it contains microchips, which world leaders will use to control citizens, and even that the RNA particles in vaccines change human’s genetic code.
However, perhaps the most popular story turned out to be about the health hazard of the vaccines – in the anti-vaccine groups, slogans about the ‘medical experiment on humanity’ became very popular.
Those statements fell on fertile ground. Many people have been disoriented by the pandemic. Additionally, some vaccines were created based on a new gene technology, which is difficult to understand without specialized knowledge.
Those factors resulted in uncertainty, which is just a step away from alternative interpretations of what is happening. It is no surprise that the anti-vaccine movement has grown. In the second half of 2020, Center for Countering Digital Hate monitored the English-speaking part of the Internet.
Experts identified 409 key accounts spreading anti-vaccine content on the Internet. It turns out that they have 58 million followers – quite aa huge number. To show their influence in scale, the following comparison can be used – this is almost as many followers as Italy’s entire population (60 million citizens).
During the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers from Center for Countering Digital Hate observed the greatest increase of ‘anti-vaxxers’ on YouTube channels they monitored – 5,8 million followers. The total number of followers on these channels was 21,3 million. Instagram took the second place – the number of followers of the monitored accounts grew 1 million over this period, reaching 7,3 million.
Facebook placed third with an increase of 935 thousand, resulting in the entire number of anti-vaccine followers reaching 29 million. The number includes only the content created in English; nevertheless, this kind of narrative is popular in multiple countries.
In December 2020, I analyzed the most popular Facebook accounts posting anti-vaccine content in Polish. Just the 25 accounts with the greatest reach had 1.66 million followers. This number equals the population of Warsaw, the capital of Poland.
We are faced with a broad scope of influence on large communities, and this influence can be dangerous. If a large number of citizens of a given country forgoes vaccination, there would be no so-called herd immunity in that area. Stopping the pandemic would be practically impossible.
Currently, we don’t know if such a situation will come to pass, mass vaccinations have only started recently, but anti-vaccine activists strive hard to make it happen.
Conspiracy Theories Can Be Easily Used in Politics
Conspiracy thinking can become a tool in politics. The Instagram account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the leading representative of the anti-vaccine movement, has gained 336 thousand new users during the pandemic. Kennedy is primarily popularizing conspiracy theories linking vaccines with attacks on Bill Gates and 5G technology threats.
He’s active not only in the USA but also accepts invitations from anti-vaccine groups in other countries. On the 18th of December 2020 he took part in a remote session of the Parliamentary Committee for Safety of Protective Vaccination of Children and Adults in Polish Sejm. The Committee was established by MPs from far-right party Confederation (Konfederacja).
During his online appearance, Kenedy directly called for opposing compulsory vaccination and compared people taking part in mass vaccination to cattle in slaughterhouses.
He appealed: “And all my friends in Poland and all my friends in Europe: I heard you let’s stand shoulder to shoulder and I will be with you there, on the barricades. We need to keep our boots on and go on, go down with our boots on when we have to”.
His call is an indirect appeal to oppose the government. It shows how easily belief in conspiracy theories can be used in politics.
Another conspiracy theory had motivated part of the people storming the US Capitol in Washington on the 6th of January 2021, when members of the US Congress ratified presidential election results.
This conspiracy is called QAnon. Its followers believe that the world is ruled by criminals, mostly pedophiles, who are closely connected and care only about their interests, willingly sacrificing health and even the lives of ordinary citizens. According to QAnon, the only person capable of stopping this elite mafia was Donald Trump.
This theory originated in the USA in 2017, on the social media platform Reddit. The leader of the movement is anonymous Mr Q, who sends his followers coded information on social media – they believe that Q has access to confidential data. We can find here classic and the most appealing elements of conspiracy theories: secrecy, an unknown source with access to confidential materials, codes which have to be deciphered and a hero – Donald Trump.
It is then not surprising that QAnon followers did not want to believe in Trump’s loss in the elections, and were then ready even to storm the Capitol to prevent the change in the United States’ presidency – for them, it meant saving the world.
At first, QAnon was a niche narrative, but it grew more radical with time and became an extremist, religious-political ideology, which allowed violence. Members of this movement have created their communities on social media, mostly Facebook.
Marc-Andre Argentino from Canadian Concordia University has analyzed them. According to his findings, in 2020, the number of QAnon members on the Internet grew 581%. In July of 2020, there were 179 QAnon groups on Facebook, with more than 1,4 million members and 120 sites with 911 thousand likes. When Facebook decided to close those information channels, due to growing threat, followers moved to less restrictive social platforms.
Another researcher, Alex Kaplan, counted 62 QAnon supporters in the pre-election to the United States Congress (most were republicans); almost 600 thousand voted for them. Twelve of them took part in the election, and one person gained a seat in the House of Representatives.
What’s more, Donald Trump retweeted QAnon followers on his own Twitter, and former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn used a hashtag characteristic for QAnon in his posts.
Threats, Radicalism, and Violent Attacks
Already in May of 2019, in their official report, the FBI has shown that QAnon is a threat to public security. In July of 2020, The Combating Terrorism Center at West Point published an article by two Canadians, Amarnath Amarasingam and Marc-Andre Argentino, in which they described cases of crimes or acts of violence committed by people under the influence of QAnon.
Among them was the case of Jessica Prim. This 37-years-old dancer was arrested on the 29th of April 2020, in New York, after she drove onto a pier in a car full of knives. She streamed her drive on social media, threatening to kill Joe Biden for his alleged part in the activities of pedophile conspiracy – in line with the QAnon theory.
The authors highlight that Prim has radicalized very quickly: she first came across QAnon most likely on the 9th of April 2020. Twenty days later, she was already threatening with violence.
Her radicalization had, of course, personal basis, stemming from her previous experiences; this process would not occur in the same way with other followers. However, we can’t control whom the conspiracy theories on social media reach.
Among the audiences, there may be relatively emotionally-stable people, as well as those easily susceptible to radicalization, just like Jessica Prim. Under the influence of conspiracy theories, they might become a danger to everyone around them.
Just half a year after the article was published, QAnon followers have stormed the US Capitol. This compelled many American institutions and media to start treating the warnings against this movement seriously. It is common, not only in the USA, to dismiss people believing in conspiracy theories.
They are seen as lunatics, who can be ignored, rather than people with real power to change the situation. But the threat to state security, the foundations of democracy or – in the case of anti-vaccine groups – to public health are not the only problems stemming from the popularity of alternative narratives.
In autumn of 2020, I have conducted 26 interviews with relatives and friends of people who believe in conspiracies. They have shown that the deeper one’s belief in conspiracy theories, the more difficult it is to keep in contact with them on a previous level. Interviewees spoke of communication difficulties and distance from family and friends.
Sometimes, aggression appeared in the relationships, or they were entirely broken. Among the cases I’ve analyzed, there were people who because of conspiracy theories have lost jobs or had a negative influence on the health of their relatives, for example, deciding not to vaccinate their children or persuading their elderly parents not to vaccinate themselves against Covid-19 or ignore the health restrictions.
There are already support groups for people left and hurt by QAnon followers on social media – the most well-known on the Reddit platform. At the beginning of February of 2021, it had 125 thousand members. The need for emotional support is enormous – unfortunately, most of the people experiencing the consequences of believing in an alternative reality never receive it.
Rebuilding Trust as the Solution to the Problem
Conspiracy theories in the crisis time of the pandemic, due to their popularity, resulted in problems, which appear in various areas of socio-political life. Creating conspiracy theories is nothing new, and thus social media are not responsible for the appearance of such content; nevertheless, they facilitate their spread.
In this case, they can also be used to limit their availability. For social media to serve this role, and ensure freedom of speech for the Internet users at the same time, we need external, transparent legal regulations that would answer, in a straightforward manner, the question of what can be done on the platform and what should not. The decisions about banning accounts and entire communities should not depend entirely on social media owners.
However, this is only a part of what needs to be done. To deal with the problem, we need systemic solutions, focused on causes, not symptoms. Currently, we have the tendency to concentrate on technical questions (for example, discussing whether we should block accounts spreading dangerous content or not). The popularity of conspiracy theories has a deep psychological basis.
To decrease the need for alternative explanations, we should, primarily, rebuild trust in the state and public institutions. The lack of trust is the main reason why, in the time of crisis, citizens look for explanations outside of the official information sources. Regaining trust is a long process, but necessary if we want to really change the attitudes of conspiracy theorists.
Another element would be creating systemic help both for the followers of conspiracy theories and their families. Specialized programs should be offered to voluntary support people in leaving alternative reality, and inform relatives how to live with conspiracy theorists and not lose contact with them.
Thirdly: an educational offensive is necessary, on the one hand, to reach Internet users with real information on the most pressing matters, on the other hand, teach them how to distinguish truth from falsehood in online publications.
Only after introducing those measures, we can go back to technical aspects and discuss who should be affected by limits on social media platforms. Unfortunately, it seems that the world is going in a different direction right now.
Authorities are focused on the symptoms, not the causes – social media platforms, not people who post alarming content there. In my opinion, this does not offer a chance of solving the problem of the spread of conspiracy theories or limiting the process of radicalization among online users.
The article was first published in “Beyond Flat Earth. Conspiracy Theories vs. European Liberals”, edited by Milosz Hodun (Warsaw: Projekt: Polska, 2021).
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 Read more in Chapter 3.
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