Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The official student newspaper of Methodist Ladies' College, est. 2020

Pandemics and conspiracy theories: a narrative story arc

The exposition

The signs are everywhere: religious prophecies and the four horseman of the apocalypse have been incriminated, the 5G network is currently suspected for murder, and Bill Gates’ freaky premonitions have become the central tenets of a occultist conspiracy group.

It’s undeniable: pandemics signal the coming of Ragnarok.

At least, it sure feels like it. An article from the Conversation describes this feeling in terms of Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino’s “cultural apocalypses”, which describe the sense that “a specific historical world is ending.” Indeed, the deserted malls and masked crowds would have seemed absurd to us even back in October 2019.

The hysteric conspiracies following pandemics have bled all over the history books: when the 1918 flu pandemic revved its engines in America, a US army official speculated that a German submarine had come ashore and sent infected patients to wreak havoc. When Christopher Columbus’s crew introduced syphilis to Europe in 1390, documents showed that the disease underwent a dynamic naming journey as it tracked across the continent: in one instance “the French sickness” in Germany, “the German sickness” in Poland, and finally “the Portuguese sickness” when it was spread to the Indies and Japan.

Today, we’re going to be fielding the question: why is it that conspiracy theories feed on situations that herald disaster?

The action

  1. Studies have shown that heightened anxiety can cause people to think more conspiratorially.

The reason for this causal link is that conspiracy theories provide a scapegoat. “People can assume that if these bad guys weren’t there, then everything would be fine,” says cognitive psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, “whereas if you don’t believe in a conspiracy theory, then you just have to say terrible things happen randomly” (Scientific American, 2019).

A 2015 study in the Netherlands found evidence to support this theory. In one condition, students were asked to recall a time when they were not in control–an anxiety primer. In the second condition, students were primed to think of a time they were in complete control. In the third, they simply wrote down what they had for dinner. Each group was then asked their opinion on the construction of a problem-riddled subway line in Amsterdam.

The first group was more likely to believe conspiracy theories such as that the city council was stealing money from the subway line budget, or that residents’ safety was being put at risk intentionally.

  1. Feelings of alienation may also breed conspiracy theorists

A 2017 study at Princeton university organised university students into three groups, and asked them to write two paragraphs describing themselves. They were told that these descriptions would be shared with the other group members who would use it to decide whether they wanted to work with the individual. They told half that they had been rejected, and half that they had been accepted. Those who felt unwanted were more likely to believe scenarios contained contrived conspiracies.

  1. Finally, a feeling that society is in jeopardy encourages conspiratorial thinking.

In a 2009 study, a group of students was told that many parts of their lives were out of control because they were exposed to some natural catastrophe. Another group was told that things were in control. They were all then asked to read an essay on government handling of catastrophes, which either took a positive or a negative stance.

Those primed for lack of control and negativity towards the government tended to believe negative events in their lives were caused by enemies rather than chance: a precursor to full blown conspiracy theorizing.

If anxiety, feelings of alienation and belief that society is in decline or disaster can all encourage conspiratorial thinking, it is no wonder that the coronavirus has gotten the internet astir. People all around the world are seeking solace by trying to find a root cause to this pandemic, because uncertainty nurtures negative feelings, and humans quite dislike feeling negative.

How, then, can we as the people combat the onslaught of conspiracy?

The resolution

The Scientific American tells us to check the validity of any claim: some hallmarks of conspiracy theories are contradictions, invalid assumptions or a fallacious interpretation of fact and data.

Be aware of confirmation bias–get the whole picture of an issue, and make sure you’re not just seeking out information that supports a belief.

Here are some more adages from fellow students that we can assimilate into our minds and spirits:

Common sense is your best weapon. I’d like to believe that most people have the mental capacity and maturity to know when something doesn’t seem to add up.” – Amy Xiao, Year 11

“Study TOK” – Amy Xiao, Year 11

“Get educated, don’t be stupid.” – Lavinia Barker, Year 11

“Accept that the world is a simulation and nothing is real therefore nothing can be fake” – Molly Scarff, Year 11

“Perform lateral reading and research from a range of sources to avoid misinformation” – Sara Charlesworth, Year 11

“Lateral reading (verifying as you read) and using credible + academic sources!” – Em Tran, Year 11

“Have common sense” – Harriet Waymark, Year 11


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