Conspiracy theories around COVID-19 continue to spread. Experts weigh in on why people believe them.
When Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican who has publicly shunned face masks, tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, the news sparked a chain reaction. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced new rules that required lawmakers to wear masks on the House floor, and several members of the House revealed that they were planning to go into quarantine.
Soon after, Gohmert released a video on Twitter, revealing that he is asymptomatic. He then shared a conspiracy theory about wearing masks that, apparently, he also believes. Gohmert said he “can’t help but wonder” if he contracted COVID-19 from adjusting his mask with his hands. “It is interesting, and I don’t know about everybody, but when I have a mask on, I’m moving it to make it comfortable,” he said. “And I can’t help but wonder if that put some germs in the mask.”
Gohmert’s theory on his mask’s role in his COVID-19 diagnosis, however, may be rooted in outdated information. Back in March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, said in an interview with 60 Minutes that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” adding that people who wear masks tend to touch their face more often to adjust them, and that comes with a risk of spreading germs from their hands to their face. However, that has since been debunked, and face masks became widely recommended by public health officials, including Fauci, in April.
Gohmert is far from the only person spouting flawed information — or floating conspiracies — around the coronavirus. One such theory is also swirling around the death of businessman and former presidential candidate Herman Cain. Cain died this week of COVID-19, his team announced on his website Thursday. It’s unclear how or where Cain contracted the virus, but he was admitted to the hospital less than two weeks after attending President Trump’s rally, without a mask, in Tulsa, Okla., in June.
In 2006, Cain was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, but recovered — and some coronavirus deniers on Twitter claimed that it was cancer, not COVID-19, that killed Cain. “So Herman Cain dies due to complications with stage 4 colon cancer, but somehow, COVID 19 is listed as cause of death? Y’all stop!” one person wrote on Twitter.
These are just a few of the more recent conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19, but they’re far from the only ones. Social media is flooded with comments from people who claim the virus is “just a flu” and a “hoax.” There’s even a theory being floated that Fauci created SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and sent it to China.
Several traveling nurses previously told Yahoo Life that hearing conspiracy theories about the virus is hurtful, especially when they put their health at risk on a regular basis. “A few of my friends that I talked to in Texas would try to tell me, ‘Oh, no, this is a virus-driven agenda; this is a plandemic, not a pandemic,’” said Olumide Peter Kolade, a nurse who spent more than three months treating patients in New York City. “I just felt like it was an insult to anybody that’s putting their life at risk just to provide care for anybody out there at the hospital.” ICU nurse Tom Huling has had similar experiences. He told Yahoo Life that some friends who support coronavirus conspiracy theories claim that the virus is a “control mechanism.”
There is plenty of scientific evidence available online from reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, and numerous research studies that show COVID-19 is a real threat to public health. There is also research that shows wearing a mask in public can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Still, conspiracy theories persist.
So, why do people buy into these COVID-19 conspiracy theories?
There are many reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories, but the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 make it particularly ripe for these theories — and believers. “Conspiracy theories are rooted in distrust and uncertainty, and there are two major areas in which people have long been distrustful: the medical community and politics. Unfortunately, with the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a merger of both,” Dr. Anthony Tobia, a psychiatrist at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry, tells Yahoo Life. “If ever there was a perfect storm where people were going to conjure conspiracy theories, it would be this.”
Of course, these conspiracy theories aren’t just floating out there. Some people believe them. Tobia says there’s “never an easy answer” as to why people behave the way they do, “much less conspiracy behavior,” but mental health experts have some theories.
The first is that people tend to inherently distrust someone or something they’re unfamiliar with. “The natural tendency is to believe what your mom, dad or people you love tell you,” Tobia says. But, as people grow up, they get their information farther away from those familial bonds — and it can take time to form a new, trusting relationship with other people and organizations, Tobia says. For some, getting information from the CDC or popular news sources is a no-brainer because they’ve done it for years. But others who are less familiar with those sources may be uncertain, and more likely to believe information from less reputable sources.
Education is a factor, psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life. “Conspiracy theories are most widely held by those who have not been successful educationally,” he says. “The educated individual trusts facts, history, science, logic, proofs [and] investigation. Conspiracy theories propagate by feeding off the opposite of all those intellectual pursuits.”
Conspiracy theories also “feed into already accepted views or philosophies of life that someone has adopted for many years,” Mayer says. “In the case of COVID-19, an example would be that the USA is so strong and powerful, that we are impervious to any illness causing so much havoc, so this has to be a hoax,” Mayer says.
Social media plays a role too, Tobia says. It can breed a sense of familiarity, even among people who have never interacted before and, for some, that can be a “reliable” source of new information. “The problem is, anybody can tweet anything they want,” Tobia says. “The individual who feels more comfortable getting their news from social media platforms is more likely to be at risk for adopting a conspiracy theory.”
The uncertainty that has often resulted from the global pandemic can contribute as well, Tobia says. “There is a correlation between uncertainty and more willingness to believe conspiracy theories,” he says. The isolation that can come from the pandemic also pushes more people to seek social interaction on social media, where they can be exposed to more conspiracy theories, Tobia says.
How do people rationalize conspiracy theories, even when there is evidence to the contrary?
“While it is rational to update your beliefs in light of new information, people don’t always do this,” Jennifer Trueblood, an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University who studies decision making, tells Yahoo Life. There is a mental health phenomenon known as cognitive bias, in which people think about information from their own personal perspective, and that can come into play here, she says.
“There are several well-known cognitive biases that can prevent people from seeking out and correctly interpreting new information,” Trueblood says. One form of cognitive bias is called confirmation bias, and it involves the tendency of people to seek out and interpret information in a way that’s consistent with their beliefs, Trueblood says. This isn’t just a conspiracy theory thing — everyone is susceptible to it — but it can help explain why some people not only believe certain conspiracy theories when they first read them, but continue to hold fast to those beliefs even when evidence proves otherwise.
People who rely heavily on social media, which is ripe with short bursts of information, may not have the attention span to sit and read or hear facts from more reputable sources, Tobia says. “Also, if they’re buying into information that’s provided to them, they’re less inclined to fact-check,” he says.
What can you do if a loved one believes COVID-19 conspiracy theories?
It depends. If you have a loved one who believes COVID-19 conspiracy theories but is still following prevention guidelines and generally being safe, Tobia recommends keeping your thoughts to yourself. “Do nothing until you have to do something,” he says.
But if you’re concerned about how tightly they’re embracing a conspiracy theory and it’s affecting their health or the safety of others, Tobia says it’s time to speak up. “Start on an individual level,” he says. “Approach them and try to speak to them about your concerns.”
Tobia recommends that you try to avoid acting in a confrontational manner but instead talk about what you’ve witnessed and your concerns about their health. “It’s not necessarily a time to discuss facts and debate,” he says.
Jessica Fishman, a behavioral scientist with a joint appointment at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “Factual arguments can actually have the opposite of the intended effect,” she says. “For example, in vaccination research, vaccine skeptics can grow defensive and more strongly opposed to inoculation when confronted with a presentation of the scientific facts.”
If your loved one’s beliefs about the theory have the potential to affect the health and safety of you and your family, Mayer says, you can set rules and consequences for behavior. “For example, you will not hug your nieces and nephews at this time, you will wear a mask in my house, or you cannot visit us during this isolation,” he says. “And you stay steadfast and consistent with your rules and consequences.”
Overall, Tobia says, there’s only so much you can do to convince people who buy into conspiracy theories that they’re wrong — just the same as it’s unlikely they can get you to change your mind too.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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