Why Do We Believe in Myths and Prophets? Conspiracy in the Time of Pandemic

[ANALYSIS Bulletin No 5] Nicolae Țibrigan | In the context of the current coronavirus pandemic, there is something that spreads much faster – the ‘infodemic’ that is massively spread in the social media. By infodemic WHO means ‘an over-abundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it’. Therefore, under this systematic information and emotional ‘bombing’ about COVID-19, a number of urban legends have developed, some of them being reinvented versions of the Cold War era. They build on the personal belief that there is no hazard and that every national or global tragedy is created in order to manipulate the masses.

The masterminds of these ‘fulfilled conspiracies’ may vary. Back in the Middle Ages, they were said to be Jews, then Freemasons, communists, Reptilians, the Vatican, the globally spread occult sects, etc. Sometimes all these pseudo-theories are put together in order to strengthen the story that there are occult entities or organisations that want to control the world by establishing the ‘New World Order’. The development of human interaction via social media is an extremely strong catalyst, especially given that research has proven that myths about COVID-19 spread online 10 times faster than the information coming from official sources and reach a much larger social-demographic group.

Under such circumstances, the Romanian language ‘common information space’ formed between Romania and Moldova (existing at least at the level of online media) has been repeatedly the target of fake news launched by marginal anonymous sources for pecuniary or even strategic purposes.

For instance, an increase in the amount of myths and disinformation about the origin of coronavirus was noticed in February, as reported by StopFals.md experts as a result of monitoring online news websites. A number of marginal websites affiliated to the pro-Kremlin propaganda (KP, Flux.md, Accent TV, etc.), lead by Sputnik Moldova, distributed online a number conspiracy theories, such as: 1) ‘NATO and EU are dangerous structures that threaten the world and plot against Russia, while the Americans want to subjugate the entire world by means of the coronavirus’; 2) ‘Coronavirus might be a biological weapon’; 3) Romania is controlled by the ‘Soros sect’ or that ‘globalists want to occupy Romania’, and so on. The issue is that all of these conspiracy theories, looking like they were inspired from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are intensely shared in chat groups on WhatsApp, Facebook, Odnoklassniki, etc., which function like genuine ‘echo chambers’ for followers of ‘hidden secrets’ (sic!). The portrait of the enemy varies here depending on the context and the manipulation technique aims at making people hate/deprecate or even fear something or someone.

Psychologists tried to explain why people believe in myths and conspiracy theories and this relies on three preconditions: 1) people’s limited capacity of analytical, logical and reflexive thinking; 2) huge amount of information to which we are exposed daily; and 3) algorithms and functioning of the social media. When all these factors come together, they create in people the availability to think sometimes based on ‘mental shortcuts’, without too much justification, thus annihilating rational reasons and facts. Also, the current crisis overwhelmed people with uncertainty and anxiety, so some of them were ready to trust such theories and myths in order to decrease the feeling of lack of control.

When people feel lack of control over some situations, they need clarification and that is served by the manipulative conspiracy-based stories in all possible areas. On the other hand, it is much easier to put responsibility for personal issues or issues raised in the media on the authorities, government, world occult sects, etc. In this respect conspiracy theories and disinformations manage to give the quick answer – ‘portrait of the enemy’ who has the role of a scapegoat, in order to preserve the positive image about our society.

However, we can also see a category of people under by the Dunning-Kruger effect (cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability) which makes them feel special: ‘I understood and I have access to information, as opposite to the banal and stupid majority’. Other studies reveal that people believing in conspiracy theories are more likely to believe in various pseudo-scientific hypotheses and paranormal phenomena. Still, scientists have not reached a unanimously accepted conclusion regarding the inclination of a certain category of people (with underdeveloped critical thinking) to believe such theories or that belief in conspiracy theories is a general phenomenon that might affect everyone. It has to be researched further on if ‘only uneducated people spread or believe in conspiracies.

But how can the civil society of the Republic of Moldova fight these coronavirus-related conspiracy theories? Are they that dangerous? The answer is more complicated, particularly when conspiracies or myths start to overlap easily with false or partially true news, exploiting the traumas of a vulnerable society, as the Moldovan one is. Nevertheless, the most efficient solutions proved to consist of general public education, so that people can avoid and, respectively, stop spreading conspiracy theories (even if we are in doubt about something being true; ‘maybe it is not totally true, but I will share it because I hate X or Z’; ‘maybe it is not totally true, but there must be a seed of truth anyway’, etc.).

The call for information ‘self-medication’ is not the most efficient either, because when you try to de-conspire disinformation on your own, you risk sinking deeper in these theories, making you believe them. When it comes to Chisinau authorities, they must be much more transparent and open to the needs of the people. Finally, let’s not forget that, by means of these theories, Russia and other ill-intentioned actors are sowing now seeds of the ‘(geo)political fruits’ that will be reaped later.

Nicolae Țibrigan holds a PhD in Sociology and is a researcher at the Institute of Political Sciences and International Relations ‘Ion I. C. Bratianu’ of the Romanian Academy. In 2017 he became a member of the Expert Council of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Information Warfare and Strategic Communication (LARICS), having coordinated a number of projects aiming at revealing digital misinformation in the Romanian-language information space. He contributes actively, through a range of analyses and investigations, to the development of the early warning platform regarding possible public disinformation campaigns initiated in Romania and Moldova. He focuses on research and analysis of information security, media & digital literacy, fact-checking, information analysis in the digital environment, combating of strategic narratives and propaganda in the digital space.

Image via: Rathbones

This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.

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