Fake News: Conspiracy theories in times of Covid-19

There is a common thread running through history of how people were influenced and used because of their concerns and fears. Covid-19 also brought to light a number of conspiracy theories and theorists and caused discontent and tension in society. How the theories actually work, what triggers them and how they can be countered; we talked about this with Dr. Marius Raab, a researcher at the University of Bamberg.

A research by Amerio Mele and Sebastian Braun

Conspiracy theories in times of Covid-19

Conspiracy theories and their effects on society are particularly dangerous in times of crisis when the population is looking for answers to major problems.

A popular approach of conspiracy theorists has always been to use deliberately out-of-context quotes as a basis for far-reaching theories. Although these theories are disprovable, they still bear a great danger. They reach immense numbers through social media and with at times tens of thousands of people who cheered on conspiracy theorists at demonstrations across Germany, they showed how quickly and effectively a collective area fire could be set. As a result of these theories, the rules of hygiene measures were disregarded deliberately and not necessarily and people were therefore put at risk.

Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between critical debate and the simple questioning of certain politically strategic measures in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and pure conspiracy theories. But with this uncertainty and fear of the “invisible enemy” Covid-19, some masterminds play with this issue and abuse human existential fears for their ideologies. Others, for various reasons, some of which were also caused by the effects of the pandemic, such as economic insecurity and isolation, found an outlet for their discontent and an answer to their insecurity in these theories with their clear concepts of the enemy.

Conspiracy theories existed long before the pandemic and will continue to exist after it, but this particular situation has once again highlighted the dangers it can pose to society. We wanted to take a closer look at conspiracy theories and their followers and show how they can be defeated or at least now progress could be made in dealing with this phenomenon.

Global Journalism: We would like to welcome our guest psychologist Dr. Marius Raab from the University of Bamberg! Thank you very much for taking the time. Could you briefly explain what your research on conspiracy theories is focusing on? 

Dr. Raab: Our research (Editor’s note: Raab’s and his team’s research) currently focuses on stories in the sense that conspiracy theory is a narrative, so something more complex that explains a lot, that people put a lot of work into elaborating it and that it is something that you cannot simply ask for with a questionnaire. Like do you believe that John F. Kennedy was killed by the CIA on a scale of 1-7? That does not really explain the complexity of these stories. We are interested in the complexity of these stories that people really connect a lot of things to. They relate them to their values, to what is relevant for them and that is what we are interested in researching.

Global Journalism: Are there psychological factors that make people susceptible to conspiracy theories?

Dr. Raab: With so many categories in psychology like personality traits for example gender, we could not research many results, so there is no such thing as a conspiracy theorist personality. Of course, when we look at internet forums, the people who are very active there and maybe post conspiracy theories there, sometimes appear like a special kind of people. But these are just people we notice because they post a lot, or they are very conspicuous or loud, but they are not necessarily representative. The normal conspiracy theorist is actually a normal person and the term conspiracy theorist is already difficult because we generalize different motives and reasons to believe in conspiracy theories and then label them as conspiracy theorists. That is why the term is difficult. If one had to say now what makes a person susceptible to such theories, then this is above all. There are many empirical findings about this over the last decades, such as the feeling of losing participation, of being disconnected, of no longer experiencing oneself as acting as effective in the world. And that does not necessarily mean the social status. So, of course, if I have to live from Hartz-IV (Editor’s note: The lowest level of German social security payments) now, it is an experience that I do not have much to say in society, but I can also earn very well and get this feeling, be very highly educated and still have the feeling that I do not have any control over my body or my health. A bit of the anti-vaccine cliché. They can be wealthy, well-educated people and yet, they say their children will not be vaccinated.  These people are not financially disconnected, but they still feel that they no longer have power over important areas of their lives, and this is a finding that has been confirmed again and again over the past years.

For example, there was an investigation concluding that people who do not have such a rational style of thinking are more susceptible.  These are always findings that are statistically significant because they are made with a large sample, but are not as clear-cut in terms of effect sizes. It is related to that, but it is not a factor that drives you in that direction.

Global Journalism: On the other hand, are there people or factors where you can say people are protected from believing such theories?

Dr Raab: It is hard to say. I would also like to defend the cognitive mechanism of thinking that there might be something else behind an event, that there might be things happening that are not obvious. That is something quite reasonable. Especially in philosophical research it is often emphasized that this is an ability that characterizes us human beings and that is also important for our society in order to prevent people from exploiting a system for themselves. Even in a democracy like ours, it is the case that many decisions are not transparent. That means, if somebody would not react at all to conspiracy theories, this would be alarming as well because this characteristic, to look for hidden machinations, is important. Think of an immune system that should always run on a certain level. But when the immune system attacks your own body, then you can think of it like a conspiracy theory.  Then enemies are seen where there are none and you have an autoimmune disease. Think of the NSA affair, think of the VW fraud scandal. So, there are always examples in history where you have to say in the end, the people who have always said that were right. So, believing no conspiracy theories may be as difficult as believing every conspiracy theory because there are real conspiracies. You just have to find a way to deal with it, not falling into cynicism but still not to believe everything.

Global Journalism: Away from the people and back to the theories: are there any factors that make a theory itself more “successful” or that one theory reaches more people than other theories?

Dr. Raab: Of course, this is very dependent on the zeitgeist. That is what we are experiencing with Covid-19 when people stand in the marketplaces and demonstrate against compulsory masks. I have often discussed with colleagues what the factors could be. Well, one thing, and this does not sound as solid as you are used to it psychologically nowadays, but I got the impression that it is often about boundaries.  These people want to say: I am here, and they are there. This can be the case with nationalist conspiracy theories and continues with vaccination critics with the question what is allowed to enter my body. Often conspiracy theories divide the world into good and evil, I find that a bit simplistic. It is not always the case that we want to see the bad ones there and the good ones here, but conspiracy theories divide the world or space. They tell me what is here, and what should be there and depending on current events the content can change. Right now, it is Covid-19 that is causing many people to develop conspiracy theories.

Global Journalism: Do you have any understanding on how the current situation, including the isolation caused by the pandemic, contributes to certain people believing in conspiracy theories?

Dr. Raab: Isolation is an important factor. Also, because people have a lot of time to spend on Facebook or similar platforms. It is also a factor in other aspects. For example, these mouth and nose covers trigger purely psychologically unpleasant associations. If you have seen someone with a mask like that before, it was for example in a hospital, a place where you do not want to be. You no longer see your counterpart properly; you do not see their emotions properly. My chair’s professor Mr. Carbon conducted studies on how hard it is to recognize emotions when people wear masks. It makes social interaction more difficult. In addition, the unclear news situation and the reporting by the media and the communication of politicians played a major role. First, they said that masks do not help, then it was announced that masks only help protect others. Then the question was raised: did the surgeons and doctors wear the masks for years only to protect others or also themselves? That was not plausible either. Going back and forth has then created this feeling of who can I currently believe? Of course, people start searching for alternative sources and if someone gives them clear statements, that is attractive for them.

Global Journalism: In other words, if public authorities and the media cannot make clear statements, people are more susceptible to theories that make these statements whether they are right or wrong?

Dr. Raab:  Yes, but maybe sometimes it is not the clarity that is important but the recognized honesty.  If the politicians would have said at the beginning: Sorry, we missed to buy masks, it would have made sense. Then it might have had other effects than to say that there is no point in wearing masks. Because then people would have said: you have forgotten to buy some, is that the real reason? I do not know what the real reason for this miscommunication was. That feeling of intransparency and dishonesty in communication is perhaps the reason why these people are looking for these alternative explanations. They are also forced to look for alternative points of views when they have the impression that the official position is loaded with such an uncertainty and people ask themselves: Are they telling me the truth at all? Entering an echo chamber or filter chamber, these terms that have been discussed for some years now, that you get into a bubble in which you only hear one opinion and have the feeling that everyone says the same thing – that is the situation right now.

Global Journalism: What role does the political situation play, i.e. the feeling of not being politically represented as a leftist or conservative person, or that one’s own political views do not set the tone? What role does this play for people who believe in these theories?

Dr. Raab: Particularly in the political area a rough distinction must be made between two major categories. One part would be that conspiracy theories can be consciously used as a propaganda instrument. As an instrument of mobilization, precisely through the assumption of a hidden enemy which is very popular in these theories. They provide an explanation why one’s own political world view is not in the majority at the moment. In the Third Reich, this was clearly the case with conspiracy theories about Jews. It was said that the Jews were to blame for the fact that the ideology of the National Socialists did not yet have the significance it should have. You needed an enemy to explain the failure of your own ideology and conspiracy theories were very well suited and still are because I can make good claims with what is hidden that are not verifiable. There will always be conspiracy theories as propaganda and as an instrument of ideological struggle. People who need a reason why they are not the majority, will always turn to conspiracy theories. The other point is when people try to figure out how the world works and why they are not doing well like in a grassroots movement. They often do not have a clear image of the enemy. They rather come out of the masses. Of course, they can also become dangerous if an enemy image develops, but they do not have the focus on who is to blame for their misfortune. Such theories can come up again and again because they sometimes turn out to be productive. But if a theory is used as a propaganda tool then you cannot always be sure if there is hate and exclusion behind it and that it does not do anything good for society.

Global Journalism: What role do the echo chambers and social networks play in spreading conspiracy theories?

Dr. Raab: The role is empirically but also perceived to be big. But I would have to reiterate that conspiracy theories have always existed. They were also possible without Facebook. Now, of course, the speed with which such things can be spread in relation to current events is much higher. Something happens somewhere in the world and five minutes later we all know about it. This is problematic because we depend on it when we build our picture of reality, that we need this information but cannot research every piece of information ourselves. That is also the case with vaccination. If you talk to someone who has a critical attitude towards vaccinations and does not have his children vaccinated, at some point you will reach your limits and have to say: I have not studied this. I have not done any research. I rely on the recommendations of the Robert Koch Institute, for example. I have a different opinion. I have good reasons, but I rely on others. I have to rely on other people’s information all the time in my daily life. In an echo chamber where many say the same thing, in my Facebook feed or wherever, we humans are built to think that when everyone says the same thing, there is something to it. If we did not have this mechanism, we would not be able to find our way in the world. The problem are these echo chambers, because we have the feeling that everyone would say the same thing, but this is only the case because the algorithm only shows us the same opinions all the time. It is not a representative sample. When we go out into the world, we even have many different opinions at the regulars’ table because there is nobody who filters it beforehand. This gives the impression that everybody says the same because we are only confronted with people who say the same thing. This filter mechanism is the dangerous one because the normal heuristics, i.e. the search procedure to find one’s way quickly through a lot of information, no longer works because we are always presented with the same opinions. That is also the dangerous thing about search engines like Google which also prepare my results according to my past search inquiries. It does not have to be a computer scientist who specifically programs something like this, but rather these are general machine learning procedures and when a conspiracy theory goes into the algorithm, then a conspiracy theory comes out.

Global Journalism: What role do traditional media play in dealing with conspiracy theories?

Dr. Raab: Maybe it would be interesting to ask the question, what role should they play? Of course, it is not easy. It is similar with fake news: if I deny fake news, I will repeat them. We all remember that from school. There is one basic rule: never write something false on the blackboard. Because people can remember things quite well, but they cannot really remember so-called meta information. So, they can memorize a fact they have read but they might not remember where they got this fact from one or two weeks later, and they might not remember if what they heard was true or not, another two weeks later.

There are some things that you simply cannot ignore in a society, especially when it concerns agitation against groups of people. You may also have to weigh up and say that people may have a right to this opinion, even if it is strange and probably untrue. As long as it does not hurt anyone. We are in a free society. Especially as a researcher, you always have the problem that there is not one correct answer to every phenomenon. Even with new developments like Covid-19, at the beginning, you get phone calls and journalists ask what is going on in the marketplaces? You should just be honest and say that you do not know. I have not talked to any of these people yet, I have not had a chance to take a closer look and science takes its time. As a scientist you do not want to fall into this trap and to give simple answers to complex questions and at the same time say that other people would fall for simple answers to complex phenomena. But back to your question: what role do the media play? The Media is an important information pool. Media should always transport things truthfully. I have not researched this, but I wondered at the beginning why the media did not report more critically. Especially in connection with the contact restrictions which were massive restrictions on fundamental rights. I think that was the right way to deal with it but why is it not discussed?  Why is it not seen more critically? And there was no broad discussion about whether this is justified, from my point of view. These discussions are then held elsewhere because that has kept people busy. Although it was a difficult situation and although human lives were in danger, it was the role of the media to remain critical and to say that this is about our constitution. In this case I would have appreciated more critical reporting. Now we see that these discussions were held on Facebook and on the marketplaces and it is also the right of the people to do this if it does not happen through the normal channels. All this at the expense of being confused with views and facts that are questionable. You can say that if a topic seems to be without alternative or is not controversially discussed, then conspiracy theories and remote opinions look for another way into society. It is understandable that you want to discuss this, if for example suddenly you are not allowed to visit your father or grandfather in an old people’s home anymore, you want to talk about it and ask the question if it is really justified to this extent. The discourse was not forbidden, but it was not conducted in the media or on the political side. Not even by the opposition. There was a polarization immediately. To intervene as a moderator in something like this and to mediate and reconcile this situation is difficult, I know that. If I had a recipe for that, I would write books about it, and make a lot of money, but you still have to try.

Global Journalism: From a psychological perspective, are there any conclusions on how to approach people in order to avoid pushing them into a defensive attitude and thus into conspiracy theory and without leaving these views without contradiction? 

Dr. Raab: One advice you can give is not to think about it and think there is someone I have to teach. You have to have a sincere interest. You should ask questions and be interested. If you fake your interest, you have already lost because your counterpart notices. If there is no honest interest in other people, it becomes difficult. But if this interest is there, then I have a good chance because then I can try, and this is a kind of basic finding in all areas, not only conspiracy theories, that it is important to grab people by their motivation. If someone tells me that he is not going to vaccinate his child, it is not because he is a bad person but because he feels in his world that it is best for the child’s health. Health and autonomy are important to him. That means, I have to talk about these topics and show what health and autonomy mean to me and then figure out why we have different ideas. Maybe I can find out this basic motive behind each theory. Then I will discover that we are looking for something that is hidden which has to be brought out of the dark first. Kind of like a conspiracy theory. I look for the real factors behind the obvious. I then have to explore this common motivation.

Global Journalism: What other insights do you have, not related to individuals but to the public debate, the media or even academia, to most effectively combat such conspiracy theories?

Dr. Raab: I would emphasize that we have to be a bit more careful with the term “conspiracy theory” because it includes many reasons and contents under one term. It does the whole thing wrong. I have to consider the conspiracy theory not as a conspiracy theory but from its content. Is it something anti-Semitic? Is it political? Is it something related to health? The fact that there is a conspiracy theory behind each of them is not the main feature that makes them so dangerous. The dangerous thing is the content of certain conspiracy theories and not that someone assumes that someone is doing something in secret but that perhaps a minority is identified as the perpetrator. The term conspiracy theory sometimes distracts from the actual dangers because the danger in most cases is not the assumption that there is a conspiracy but who is identified as the conspirator. In addition, being calm and approaching those who are affected would help. It is sometimes said that conspiracy theories divide the world into good and evil which makes it easier for people. But when you say something like that, you divide the world into good and evil and you say there are conspiracy theories and then there is the other side and one is clearly distinguishable from the other. Also, you should look at the motives because the theory is just a symptom for what moves people and you should think about why it moves so many people. What brings people out into the streets? The real cause is what makes them become so active and emotional. We need to ask how those emotions were created and what can we do about it that people feel so disconnected.

Dr. Marius Raab is a psychologist and computer scientist at the University of Bamberg and has been researching the phenomenon of conspiracy theories for almost a decade.