In a recent study from YouGov, it was revealed 20% of adults in Britain believe humanity has secretly made contact with aliens from other worlds.
While conspiracy theories like this may seem harmless on the outside, research from the World Health Organisation points to worrying signs of conspiracy theories being taken more seriously. This trend has been coupled with the rise of misinformation online in an era of fake news. The WHO have coined this new phenomenon an “Infodemic”, pointing to a larger problem of disbelief in scientific facts.
Conspiracy theories can range from harmless stories about Elvis still being alive to the existence of Bigfoot. However, the rise of conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and other scientific matters has worried the WHO. They believe if misinformation is peddled both online and in print media, the pandemic will worsen due to belief in misinformation regarding vaccines, masks and the virus itself.
At the start of the outbreak in the UK 5G communication towers were damaged, often being set on fire. The vandals carrying out the attack believed 5G signals were helping the spread of coronavirus. Some even believed the virus itself didn’t exist and all symptoms were down to radiation given off by the masts. Misinformation like this spreads quickly; spurred on by the use of social media, dangerous views can be accessed more easily before being debunked.
For the majority of people, these conspiracy theories are comical but for a vocal minority believing them, they represent the truth. Social psychologists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam have shown the belief in misinformation surrounding COVID-19 has led to changed behaviours likely to spread the virus further. This includes acts like removing masks and refusing to take vaccines.
Tackling the problem of anti-scientific thought is difficult as a key part of the scientific process is questioning results and analysing evidence. Many conspiracy theorists believe they are doing this but are often using fake or incorrect data to promote their beliefs. These actions lead to a phenomenon known as “Collective Narcissism”: when groups of individuals often believe their views are of inflated importance when the opposite is true. Coupled with frequent posts on social media websites where posts aren’t easily fact-checked or regulated, conspiracy theories can be presented as the truth to those vulnerable to believing them.
Believers of conspiracy theories often feel like their explanations can help them regain control of a situation which is out of their hands. Studies by the University of Kent have shown those who are insecure in their relationships and have a more negative outlook on life are more likely to believe in fake news and fabrication.
However, this isn’t to say there is no hope in stopping the spread of anti-science views. Research is showing interventions on social media, stopping the spread of fake news, and taking down dishonest posts can prevent more dangerous views from spreading. Early intervention by family and friends has also been shown to stop the progression into more menacing views. This can be done by asking those who’ve expressed belief in mistruths where they heard them from and whether they think the sources can be trusted. So the next time you hear your friends talking about the hunt for Bigfoot, it might be a good idea to question where their information is from.