Following the Herd: Why are conspiracy theories thriving in pandemic times?


We’ve all heard of flat earthers, anti-vaxxers and those who think the moon landing was an elaborate hoax. The vast majority of us can agree that these beliefs are farfetched, or even somewhat laughable… but conspiracy theories aren’t all so bonkers, and that’s what makes them so dangerous. Misinformation incited the mob that stormed the Capitol, highlighting the disastrous effects such theories can produce.

I, for one, have seen an increase in those in my social and professional networks sharing increasingly suspect information.

In a time when we should be working together to overcome adversity, why are ever more of us turning against seemingly rational thought and falling prey to the worrying world of conspiracy theories?

Sheep herd

Social Proof

When something as momentous as a global pandemic happens, our normal belief systems may be thrown off, we may be more inclined to look to our support networks for help in understanding what’s going on. Humans have an innate need for certainty; to feel safe, secure and in control.

A key reason for our belief in conspiracy theories is due to a phenomenon known as social proof. As social animals, our status in society is more important to us than being right. Even without realising, we constantly compare our actions and beliefs to those of our peers, and can end up subconsciously altering them to fit in. Consequently, if our peers believe something which would otherwise seem ridiculous to us, we’re more likely to follow the herd and reconsider. Social media is artificially intensifying this phenomenon.

Imagine walking down an unfamiliar high street when you’re dying for a great coffee. The café with the line stretching down the street inevitably catches your eye – what’s all the fuss about? You’ll assume people are queuing because the coffee is better, and subsequently join the line. Now imagine finding out that these customers have been paid to stand there, and haven’t even tried the coffee.

In short, social proof is a much more persuasive technique than purely evidence-based proof, which is why this sort of proof is so popular in advertising (think user testimonials, influencer recommendations, ‘89% of dentists agree’..).

With the help of social media, fake news can gain traction fast. A post is made on social media, engagement increases the exposure, which shows the post to more people, who may also ‘like’ ‘share’ or ‘comment’ without examining the validity of the sources. At a time when we may be spending more time online, this is inevitably happening more often. We all need hope, and what’s being shared may even be information that people deem to be helpful, but we’ve all seen the consequences of spreading falsities.

Confirmation Bias

Another factor is confirmation bias, which is the name for our inherent inclination to believe information that supports our already existing beliefs while discounting that which doesn’t. You may remember that we previously touched on confirmation bias in ‘Why self-confidence is making you fail’.

We’re all guilty of this to different degrees. Consider the last time you listened to a political debate: it was much easier to unpick the argument of the opponent, right?

You may think that this can be overcome by increased knowledge and education, but astonishingly this can make things even worse, as people simply add more information to their existing beliefs! This doesn’t mean people never change their minds, of course they do… but we all know someone who’s stuck fast in the muddy belief in something ridiculous.

Why are they so dangerous?

We’ve long hoped that the fast rollout of an effective covid vaccine will spell the end of lockdown, and bring us back to normality. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, however, have put a spanner in the works, with refusal rates among certain demographics as high as 23%.

After numerous campaigns against Covid-19 vaccines (and vaccines in general), in December Facebook announced that it would start removing false claims to prevent ‘imminent physical harm’. Among already-debunked claims that won’t be allowed are falsehoods about vaccine ingredients, safety, effectiveness and side-effects, as well as the long-running false conspiracy theory that coronavirus vaccines will contain a microchip to control or monitor patients.

Facebook is one of many social platforms which have been heavily criticised for what’s been seen as an inconsistent approach to fake news and false claims, and misleading content about the pandemic is still being shared extensively.

Can we change people’s minds?

Intriguingly, experts list the solution as inoculation: prevention rather than cure. Instead of hoping that accurate, reliable information will change people’s minds, giving them the tools to recognise false stories before the encounter it works far more effectively. A kind of knowledge-vaccine against anti-vaccine conspiracy theories – who’d have thought!

There are a few steps you can take to arm yourself and others.

  • Reduce your news consumption or anything else that’s making you nervous. We have surprising control of our emotions when we actually try to tune-in and recognise why we’re feeling the way we are.
  • Connect and re-consider by making an effort to remain in regular contact with friends and colleagues. Feeling isolated is thought to be a key reason for people falling for conspiracy theories.
  • Engage critical thinking. People often fall prey to misinformation due to lazy thinking, and we should do our best to consider if the claims in front of us are accurate. For example, is this a reliable source? Is this information likely to be biased?
  • Accept the circumstances. Aside from looking after ourselves and others by behaving responsibly, there’s not a lot we can do to control the pandemic as individuals. The situation is brighter in 2021, so while it’s healthy to feel negative emotions, remind yourself to think positively and it’ll all be over before we know it.

Further Discussion

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