- Conspiracy theories don’t just exist since yesterday and they always follow the same mechanisms
- The corona crisis has produced new theories and got many new supporters (online and offline)
- Social Media platforms mostly do their best to not support that kind of content, as a result of these aspects are shared via Telegram for example
- We need to continue asking and discussing how the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories can be curbed
- Politicians, as well as internet companies and society, need to seek and implement solutions
The corona crisis is currently affecting all of our lives on various levels: Professional life, schools or universities are restricted, private life and leisure activities do not take place as usual and everyday life is extremely influenced. In order to keep an overview of all this, it is important to keep yourself regularly informed and follow current developments.
During the last weeks, it became apparent that not everyone trusts the established media and looks for alternative explanations for the current situation. This led to some conspiracy theories that try to identify the outbreak and a higher purpose behind the coronavirus. These spread extremely fast via social networks and have found some – partly prominent – followers. This article deals with current conspiracy theories and why they became so popular. Before that though, here is a short insight into how they work and why they are created.
How do conspiracy theories work?
Conspiracy theories always work according to the same mechanisms: The starting point of every conspiracy theory is a secret society that is accused of evil intentions. This forms the thesis that stands above a conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories are often backed up by facts and figures that are easy to verify. Everything that supports the thesis is gathered by the authors of the theory and anything that contradicts it is simply ignored. Often the conclusions that are drawn from all the numbers and data are wrong. All in all, a conspiracy theory is a mixture of a few verifiable facts and many invented assertions and stories from which new contexts are constructed.
Additionally, scientist Dr. Katrin Götz-Votteler explains in a video of Puls-Reportage that conspiracy theories are usually based on a very basic explanation, a narrative: This narrative is „Us against them“. „We“ are always the small, the weak and also the good. “The others” are the bad, the influential, the powerful. At the same time, basic psychological mechanisms take effect in conspiracy theories: People get a kick out of good stories and solving puzzles and have a desire for self-knowledge (see Raab, Carbon, Muth (2018): XIX; Puls Reportage (2020)).
The reason why the corona crisis works perfectly for conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories are not a new phenomenon: They exist since the beginning of human culture. Well-known examples of conspiracy theories are those that emerged around the attacks of 9/11, the chemtrails or the flat earth theory. Conspiracy theories are usually a reaction to a certain situation that just happened or is developing. It is often associated with a threat or uncertainty for many people. The corona crisis is a perfect situation for a conspiracy theory to emerge because many people are currently worried about their health, their jobs or their own economic situation. In addition, there is little reliable knowledge about the coronavirus (see Raab, Carbon, Muth (2018): XIX; Puls Reportage (2020)).
Conspiracy theories during corona crisis
Even if there are few people who made a name for themselves with the dissemination of different conspiracy theories, the real founders of them are a small number of medics, scientists and journalists, who spread them via YouTube. In the videos, for example, they challenge the findings of the Robert Koch-Institute or other established scientists. As we already explained, these theories always revolve around a supposed ‘dark elite’, the political system or other evil forces. Conspiratorial theorists talk about a “corona-dictatorship” or the “paternalism of the citizen”. At the same time, they complain about censorship, even at huge demonstrations.
In the following, three common conspiracy theories in the context of corona will be named and explained very shortly. There will be no argumentation against these theories because other sources have done that enough. They can be found at the end of the blogpost in the listed citations.
The first theory is that the virus was made by scientists in either Wuhan, the USA or in Georgia. The scientist’s intention is to use it as a bioweapon. The second theory can be read and heard in many different ways. However, they are all about Bill Gates and his intention to compulsory vaccinate the human population. And last, there is the theory about 5G helping the virus spread via the radio masts. Because of this theory, radio masts have been destroyed and cut down so that streets were for example not accessible for emergency vehicles.
The consequences of the increasing number of theories and theorists are not only on social media but have also an impact on daily life. So-called “hygiene demonstrations” have put a lot of people on the streets – among them conspiracy theorists, but also people with resentment or critics about the corona measures or the media. Also, a new party called “Widerstand2020” has been founded. Even though they are by definition not a real party because of their lack of a political agenda, “Widerstand2020” combines enemies of science, conspiracy theorists, right-wing populists and left-wing anti-vaccination activists which can be conspired as protest voters.
Fake news and conspiracy theories on social media
The Internet, social media and search engines are an ideal breeding ground for conspiracy theories and their dissemination. Even if social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram try to restrict the visibility of hoaxes, it doesn’t always work equally well.
YouTube’s algorithm for example was designed for maximum dwell time and has therefore proposed more and more extreme videos – like videos with conspiracy theories. However, after changing the algorithm a few times, they managed to stop this problem nearly completely. On other platforms like Twitter, some contents are also first marked as „not trustworthy“, but are not deleted immediately. Therefore, a new platform shifts to the center: Telegram. The messaging app hardly ever checks or restricts any content and has long been considered a popular means of communication for the New Right and other extremist groups. Videos are posted on YouTube, however, discussed and shared in Telegram groups with up to 200.000 members founded by well-known conspiracy theorists like Attila Hildmann, Oliver Janich, Eva Hermann and Xavier Naidoo. The increase in the number of subscribers of corresponding groups, as shown in a study by Der Spiegel, supports this thesis.
To make matters worse, users find themselves in their own personal filter bubbles, which are determined by the algorithms of the big Internet companies (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Google). The users are constantly being suggested similar contributions. So if a user today reads, likes or even shares an article describing a conspiracy theory, there is a high risk that they will continue to see similar contributions in their feed.
Not a new discussion
A few years ago, the „established media“ were still the opinion makers, reporting was in the hands of professional journalism and editors determined the selection of topics. Today, every Internet user can create content and disseminate his opinion on various channels without having to check facts. Therefore we should continue asking, how the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories can be curbed. This discussion has been around for a long time, and it always revolves around the central issues: On the one hand, freedom of speech must be preserved, and on the other hand, the spreaders of false information must be prosecuted. This is a fine line that is not easy to tread and it is the duty of politicians and internet companies to seek and implement solutions. Initial efforts and further discussions are already taking place, triggered by the corona crisis. The European Union has also taken measures before the European elections in 2019 to combat disinformation on the net.
How to talk to conspiracy theorists
In the end, the question remains on how to talk to people who deeply believe in conspiracy theories and if it’s even worth a try. First, it should be mentioned that there is no “super-argument” which convinces conspiracy theorists immediately. However, there are a few aspects that improve communication.
It is important to create awareness of who and what sources one trusts and from which sources the other person got his or her information. Questioning the sources might be an idea as long as it doesn’t backfire. That means, that people are likely to believe in their arguments and sources, even more, when they are questioned and criticized.
All in all, the most important tip on how to talk to conspiracy theorists is to meet them at eye level and do not ridicule their arguments. Otherwise, the backfire-effect will definitely occur.
Further literature and recommendations:
Flaxman, Seth; Goel, Sharad; Rao, Justin M. (2016): Filter bubbles, Echo chambers, and online news consumption. In: Public Opinion Quarterly (Vol. 80, Special Issue: 298-320). Online. Available at: https://5harad.com/papers/bubbles.pdf
Kalisch, Muriel; Stotz, Patrick (2020): Corona-Videos auf YouTube – Hinter der Verschwörung. In: Spiegel Online. Available at: https://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/corona-verschwoerungstheorien-und-die-akteure-dahinter-bill-gates-impfzwang-und-co-a-2e9a0e78-4375-4dbd-815f-54571750d32d
Meyer, Kim (2018): Das konspirologische Denken: zur gesellschaftlichen Dekonstruktion der Wirklichkeit. Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft.
Nack, Clara (2020): EU will „Infodemie“ eindämmen. Online. In: Deutsche Welle. Available at: https://www.dw.com/de/fake-news-und-falsche-corona-informationen-eu-will-infodemie-eind%C3%A4mmen/a-53762864
Nocun, Katharina; Lamberty, Pia (2020): Fake Facts: Wie Verschwörungstheorien unser Denken bestimmen. Köln: Bastei Lübbe.
Raab, Marius; Carbon, Claus-Christian; Muth, Claudia (2017): Am Anfang war die Verschwörungstheorie. Berlin: Springer.
Rezo (2020): Die Zerstörung der Presse. Online. In: Rezo ja lol ey YouTube-Kanal. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkncijUZGK