The spread of the new coronavirus variant and the panic it has created have led to the emergence of a fresh wave of harmful conspiracy theories. And for the world to fully beat the pandemic, all hands must be on the deck to fight misinformation arising from them.
Said to be as old as politics, conspiracy theories are attempts “to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small powerful group. Such explanations reject the accepted narrative surrounding those events; indeed, the official version may be seen as further proof of the conspiracy.”
A similar psychological concept, the agency detection bias, which suggests that people are inclined to believe that events are caused by intelligent beings rather than other factors, has been linked to the evolutionary struggle for survival.
One reason conspiracy theories are so effective is that humans have a tendency to look for patterns and explanations, even in the absence of evidence. One 2018 study found that people who saw patterns in random events such as coin tosses and abstract paintings were more likely to imagine patterns in social-political events in the real world.
“People are most susceptible to conspiracy theories when particular psychological needs are frustrated,” explains psychologist Karen Douglas. “Specifically, people need knowledge and certainty to feel safe, secure and in control, and to feel good about themselves and the social groups they belong to.”
Conspiracy theories, according to cognitive psychologist and misinformation expert Stephan Lewandowsky, “give people a sense of psychological comfort: the feeling that they are not at the mercy of randomness.” Also, coming across a claim multiple times makes one more likely to believe it.
There are many examples of misinformation that fall within this category. In Nigeria, it has, for instance, been suggested that political leaders, humanitarian groups, or foreign countries are funding the terrorist group, Boko Haram.
They can also be weaponised towards achieving controversial objectives, such as in the case of theories about the death of Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, and his replacement with a clone. A secessionist and Igbo nationalism group, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and others have repeatedly made this claim.
The evidence? A picture of a burial used out of context, a fake CNN broadcast created with an online app, comparisons between pictures of Buhari shot at different times where he appears to look different, one manipulated portrait to make him look fatter, and statements by IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu, challenging Buhari to speak Fulfude in public.
Conspiracy theories are especially prevalent during times of anxiety, crisis, uncertainty, or hardship. And this is why since the COVID-19 infection broke out, causing a months-long pandemic across the world, many theories have been conjured either to explain the origins of the disease or to rationalise the response to the outbreak.
A survey conducted in October last year showed that a lot of people around the world were convinced COVID-19 was deliberately created, does not exist, or that the death tolls are greatly exaggerated for business and political reasons. In Nigeria, it has been suggested that the pandemic was a ploy from the outset to embezzle public funds and that the second wave, experienced starting from December 2020, was made up so that the country could make a better case for the allocation of free vaccines.
In April last year, former federal lawmaker, Dino Melaye, and founder of Christ Embassy, Chris Oyakhilome, came up with inaccurate arguments linking the 5G technology to the coronavirus pandemic and suggested that both developments were part of a grand plan for a New World Order.
More recently, Melaye and Kogi State governor, Yahaya Bello, warned people against getting vaccinated. To back their positions, they cited false claims about people dying after taking the vaccines and about a special vaccine being manufactured for and sold in African countries.
Many have been convinced from reading these theories that vaccination is, at best, a bad idea and, at worst, an evil scheme towards world domination. According to a survey conducted in July 2020, 16 per cent of British adults said they would refuse to be vaccinated against the infection and another 16 per cent were not sure what they would do.
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