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Viral thoughts. Why are COVID-19 conspiracy theories surviving?

PRESIDENCY, RI (AP) – Daniel Roberts has not been vaccinated since he was 6 years old. No amplifiers, no tetanus shots. Parents taught him that vaccines were dangerous, and when the coronavirus arrived, they called it a hoax. The vaccine, they said, was a real threat.

So when a 29-year-old Tennessee man fired his COVID-19 shot at his local Walmart last month, it seemed like an achievement. A break from his past.

“Five hundred thousand people have died in this country. “It’s not a hoax,” said Roberts, referring to conspiracy theories adopted by family and friends. “I do not know why I did not believe it. I guess I chose to believe the facts. “

As the world struggles to break the violence of COVID-19, psychologists and disinformation experts are studying why the epidemic has given rise to so many conspiracy theories that have led people to avoid masks, social distance and vaccines.

They see links between COVID-19 fraud beliefs and social media dependence on news as a source of information.

And they conclude the COVID-19 conspiracy theories that continue to give a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secret explanations, they give the believer a sense of control over a situation that would otherwise seem accidental or frightening.

The findings have implications not only for the epidemic response but also for the next “infodemic” system used to describe the COVID-19 disinformation crisis.

“We need to learn from this and make sure we can prevent it next time,” said Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon who served under George W. Bush. “Masks become the symbol of your political party. People say that vaccines are useless. The average person is confused. Who do I trust? ”

According to a June poll by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 4 Americans say they think the epidemic was “definitely” or “probably” intentional. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic constraints, such as vaccine safety. These baseless allegations are causing more and more real problems.

In January, vaccine activists forced the vaccine clinic to close for a day at Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. Dozens of cell towers in Europe have been burned by bizarre allegations that 5G wireless signals are triggering the infection. Elsewhere, a pharmacist destroyed vaccine doses, attacked medical workers, and killed hundreds of people after using toxic drugs to treat them, all because of COVID-19 counterfeits.

The most common conspiracy theories often help people explain complex, noisy events when the truth can be too disturbing to accept, says Helen Lee Bouiges, president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, which conducts research that promotes critical thinking on the Internet. Age.

Such theories often appear after significant or frightening moments in history. Moon landing, 9/11 attacks, or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when many found it difficult to accept that a lone, insane gunman could assassinate the President. Huge conspiracies involving the CIA, the mob, or others are easier to digest.

More about the COVID-19 epidemic

“People need big explanations for big problems, big world events,” said John von Cook, a cognitive-conspiracy theorist at Monash University in Australia. “Random explanations, like bats or wet markets, are simply not psychologically satisfying.”

Cook said this drive is so strong that people often believe in contradictory conspiracy theories. Roberts said his parents, for example, initially thought that COVID-19 was linked to cell towers before deciding that the virus was in fact a hoax. The only explanation they did not amuse, he said, came from medical professionals.

Distrust of science, institutions, and traditional news sources is largely due to stronger beliefs in conspiracy theories, such as the support of false science.

Confidence in American institutions was further eroded by false statements by leaders like President Donald Trump, who repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus, offered bleaching as a cure, and undermined his own administration.

An analysis by Cornell University researchers found that Trump is the biggest driver of coronavirus claims. Studies show that conservatives are more likely to believe conspiracy theories or share COVID-19 misinformation.

Carmona said she had recently complained to a group of leaders about the coronavirus when a man claimed that the epidemic was created by the Chinese government-Democrats to undermine Trump’s re-election bid.

“When people start believing in their own facts, rejecting everything the other side says, we are in real trouble,” he said.

The general distrust of American institutions has helped unite several groups under the banner of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories. These include far-right groups outraged by blockades, masked mandates, vaccine activists and QAnon followers who believe Trump is waging a secret war against a powerful satanic cannibal.

In addition to gaining insight into the COVID-19 conspiracy theories, researchers are finding possible solutions to the broader problem of online misinformation. These include greater efforts by social media companies և new regulations.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms have long been criticized for allowing misinformation to flourish. They reacted more aggressively to COVID-19 misinformation, suggesting that platforms could do more to curb misinformation on other topics, such as climate change, Cook said.

“It shows that it is a matter of will, not technical innovation,” Cook said.

It may be more difficult to address the attractiveness of our species to conspiracy theories. Experts say that teaching critical thinking and media literacy in schools is important because the Internet will only grow as a source of news.

In recent years, a theory called vaccine theory has been introduced. It involves using online games or tutorials to get people to think more critically about information.

One of the examples. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created Go Viral! An online game that educates players by creating their own misleading content.

“Studies show that games increase resistance to online misinformation, but like many vaccines, the effects are temporary. Researchers are surprised,” Cook said. “How do you give them a boost?”

One day these games can be placed as advertisements before online videos or promoted with prizes as a way to regularly vaccinate the public against misinformation.

“The real solution is education,” said Bouguez. “COVID has shown us how dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories can be, that we have a lot of work to do.”

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