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COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories

Prof. Joanne Miller discusses the danger of spreading rumors and machinations about the virus

by | April 28, 2020

Illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase

Apr 28, 2020

UD Prof. Joanne Miller says people feeling a heightened sense of lack of control or uncertainty in the face of the coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic would be more likely to potentially go to conspiracy theories as a way to regain some of that control.

Conspiracy theories have been the gasoline on the fire that has sparked resistance to coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing guidelines and doubts over the danger of the disease.

That resistance escalated into anti-social distancing protests in several states.

Conspiracy theory expert Joanne Miller, University of Delaware associate professor of political science and international relations, answered a few questions about the danger and psychology at work behind these beliefs regarding the coronavirus. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Why is COVID-19 a prime target for conspiracy theories?

Miller: People tend to believe conspiracy theories because they help them cope with uncomfortable feelings and events in their lives, and they protect our worldviews or our beliefs. When it comes to COVID-19, a lot of us are feeling a loss of control. And in the political arena, the beliefs that we tend to want to protect are beliefs about our partisanship or our ideology. We call this motivated reasoning. When it comes to something like coronavirus it’s kind of the perfect storm of both of these needs.

We see conspiracy theories, for example, that 5G technology is spreading the virus. In the United Kingdom, some people have actually set fire to 5G towers. Believing the 5G conspiracy theory gives us some control because it gives us something to fight. And that’s a sense of control that we can gain back. We can’t fight the virus itself, but if we can find the thing that we think is causing the virus that helps to regain some control.

Q: What is the potential danger in conspiracy theories, especially when it comes to something like COVID-19?

Miller: It seems like this would be more dangerous than believing some other more general conspiracy theory. There are two types of dangers related to COVID-19 conspiracy theories. One type involves the things like we’re seeing — setting fire to 5G towers — but the other is a potentially broader concern: The potential for people to resist, as we go forward, either taking antibody tests or resist getting the vaccine when one is created and rolled out.