History was recently made when insurgents swarmed the US Capitol on January 6. The insurgents believed that the presidential election was rigged, a belief that was reinforced by President Donald Trump.
“They rigged an election,” Trump falsely claimed earlier that day to a crowd of thousands of supporters in Washington D.C. “Make no mistake, this election was stolen from you, from me, and from the country.”
According to social psychologist Peter Ditto, who works at the University of California, the very idea that the election was rigged is a conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy theory can be defined as “an explanation for events that relies on the assertion that powerful people are dishonestly manipulating society”, Ditto explained to National Geographic.
“Trump has weaponised motivated reasoning,” he says. “He incited a mob, and weaponized natural human tendencies.” Those human tendencies, however, were something people commonly interacted with long before the Capitol was stormed.
The current moment has been called an infodemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), which is a time in which a deluge of data is muddled by falsehoods, and sometimes have devastating effects.
A handful of people set 5G towers in Limpopo ablaze after social media posts went viral saying that the technology caused COVID-19. Another conspiracy theory, that didn’t even originate in South Africa.
Experts say that the majority of people do not easily fall for falsehoods.
“But when misinformation offers simple, casual explanations for otherwise random events, it helps restore a sense of agency and control for many people,” says Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge.
People use cognitive shortcuts, which are largely unconscious rules-of-thumb to make decisions faster, to determine what they should believe. When people are anxious or sense disorder in their worlds, they are more likely to crave cognitive closure, which makes them more reliant on those cognitive shortcuts to make sense of their world.
A poll found that more than 50% of Americans were more stressed during the pandemic. “It’s not surprising that we are seeing a spike in conspiracy theories today,” says Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent in England.
Her research has also found that people who are anxious and tend to catastrophise life’s problems are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories.
A study published in October by van der Linden and colleagues presented residents from the US, United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, and Mexico with statements that contained common misinformation and facts about COVID-19.
While a large majority accurately identified misinformation, some people readily accepted the falsehoods.
Between 22% of respondents believed that the coronavirus was engineered in a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Some also branded accurate information as fake, such as the fact that diabetes increases your risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The study also found that the same participants who believed misinformation were also less likely to report that they complied with COVID-19 health guidance, such as wearing masks, and were also more likely to express hesitancy in getting vaccinated.
Experts say that people are more likely to believe misinformation that they are exposed to over and over again, such as the belief that the US presidential elections were fraudulent or that COVID-19 is not that dangerous when compared to the flu.