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View:Why Covid-19 has sparked a boom in conspiracy theories

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Have you heard the one about how this is all because of 5G? Or perhaps you heard how Bill Gates plans to slip surveillance technology into our bodies through a vaccine? And you can’t have escaped the theory that Covid-19 was created by a Chinese bioweapons lab with so many partisans of Donald Trump, the Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief, pushing it on the Internet — unless, of course, you are behind the Great Chinese Firewall, in which case its due to an American bioweapons programme.

Conspiracy theories flourish in lockdown. They are attempts to end uncertainty and the anxieties it causes by creating an explanation even when, or especially when, there seems to be no clear explanation. When faced with a virus whose origin, real impact and future prognosis are all unclear, rather than accept our bewildering helplessness, it is easier to clutch at an imagined cause. It helps us avoid having to confront our helplessness.

In a paper published in Frontiers of Psychology in 2013 Bradley Franks, Adrian Bangerter and Martin W Bauer, suggest that conspiracy theories are quasi-religious. They don’t offer the more formal aspects of established religions, like formal rituals or social organisation, yet for people facing unexpected and scary events conspiracy theories create narratives that “reduce the complexity presented by such events, contain the uncertainty they generate, and translate unspecific anxiety into focused fears.”

Reducing complexity and uncertainty has always been one of the functions of religion. By offering this, without the need to subscribe to the more formal aspects of religion, conspiracy theories create an ideal belief system for millennials, who can pick and choose the parts that work for them, without having to submit to formal rituals or religious authority figures. Conspiracy theories are customisable, like a Starbucks order, though like a Starbucks order they all tend to end up feeling the same.

Conspiracy theories, like religions, require converts — but unlike most religions they don’t want too many. Part of their appeal lies in making their adherents feel special, the ones with the secret knowledge of how things really work. This is why conspiracy theorists have no problem propounding outrageous, even lunatic beliefs — it sets the bar for true believers to cross, and the fewer that do, the more special it feels.

There is little point in arguing with conspiracy theorists. Facts don’t matter, only faith does, and the more they are challenged, the more it affirms their faith. Still, conspiracy theorists can be sensitive about why they feel as strongly as they do and since “being an elite” or “not feeling helpless” aren’t sympathetic positions, even if true, this is why the most successful conspiracy theories have one final element to cement their wall of weird faith: the idea that this belief exists for the benefit of others, most often their kids.

This is why an obsession with vaccines underlie the most successful modern conspiracy theories by far. Anti-vaccine believers, whose conspiracy theories range from linking them to the rise in autism to the rapaciousness of pharmaceutical companies to the virus linked variations we are seeing now, have their faith fuelled by the idea that their stand is not for themselves, but for their children. It is notable how the many mothers who are the most fanatic in this faith often link it to an ecstatic moment, like the Christian story of the Nativity, when they see their babies for the first time, and resolve never to allow the vaccine to enter their veins.

Such selfless faith is, of course, rather undermined by the fact that they are potentially exposing their children to the real suffering and risks of diseases that no longer need to happen — and other children as well, as the spread of anti-vaccination reduces community immunity. The argument about the greed of pharmaceutical companies is also countered by the fact that their money is made from disease, rather than preventing it, so preventive vaccines are hardly the money spinner that curative medicines might be. And exhaustive studies have disproved the autism link… but what is the point of arguing when it simply reinforces the faith?

Covid-19 is now providing an interesting challenge for the anti-vaccination cultists. As the world intensifies its search for a vaccine, what will the anti-vaccine votaries do? After all, this time it isn’t just their children whose lives they playing with, but their own.

Some may succumb, but others are preparing for the challenge — like tennis champion Novak Djokovic, who recently admitted he might refuse to take it, even if it means missing tournaments in countries which might insist on anyone coming in to be vaccinated. It might involve real costs like this, but then — isn’t martyrdom the ultimate way to demonstrate one’s faith?

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