How conspiracy theories spread

It’s a fact of human nature that we’re always trying to make sense of our world. The more uncomfortable our world makes us, the more we struggle to make sense of it. That can sometimes lead to irrational thinking, which can take the form of denial, catastrophising, victim-blaming or finger-pointing. Conspiracy theories arise from irrational thinking but take on an air of legitimacy when they’re repeated by multiple sources—from your friends and family to the media and various online sources.

Often, the first time you learn of a conspiracy theory, it’s being presented to you as fact because it has already been disseminated by seemingly reliable sources. This is precisely what’s been happening with COVID-19. From the moment coronavirus was reported as an outbreak, we have been trying to make sense of it, which has left us vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

In fact, more than 132 websites have been spreading verifiably false claims about coronavirus, according to NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of news and information sites. Here is a selection of the major COVID-19 conspiracy theories. We don’t judge you for believing, or wanting to believe. However, we do urge you to look at all of the facts before further disseminating them, as well as make sure to take the proper precautions to protect yourselves and others from coronavirus.

Conspiracy theory: The coronavirus is a hoax

This theory exists primarily because of denial. Who wouldn’t want it to be true that no one had gotten sick or died of a brand-new virus of unknown origins that has no known cure? Since it’s challenging to get yourself to believe that a virus that has overtaken the news might not actually exist, some have gone a step further to make it more believable by assigning a reason or motive.

Case in point: Some anti-vaxxers believe the pandemic is a hoax perpetrated by those who wish to strong-arm the world into vaccinating. “If you’re still thinking it’s coincidental that a pandemic erupted in the midst of a state by state sweep to REMOVE your right to refuse vaccination, it’s time to get your head out of the sand,” posits one group of US-based anti-vaxxers, which claims the coronavirus panic is nothing more than “irrational panic.” Tell that to the people who have it. What should you actually believe? The stories of real people who are currently battling coronavirus.

Conspiracy theory: All these precautions are overkill

Here is another conspiracy theory with its roots and appeal in the urge to deny the existence of this global pandemic. Some of its proponents go so far as to caution against washing hands excessively. “People are engaging in extreme handwashing, disinfecting their houses with high-grade cleaning products, refusing handshakes and wearing masks,” notes one such group, as reported by Mother Jones. “This is nonsense. Like any virus, coronavirus is no match for someone with a strong immune system.”

This claim is false, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and its misinformation that can make the pandemic worse and cause grave harm to others. Coronavirus is actually just one of the many diseases you can prevent by washing your hands.

Conspiracy theory: Coronavirus was Canada’s bioweapon, stolen by China

Also known as the “Great Game India” hoax because it originated on the Great Game India website, this conspiracy theory appeals to our desire to believe bad things like pandemics don’t just happen, but rather are made to happen by bad people.

In the course of a single day, this conspiracy theory gained momentum as other websites reprinted it word for word from the original website, with added twists. It wasn’t long before Reddit threads began reposting the story and it spread to Facebook and Twitter. “So long as social media platforms continue to fail to warn their users about the nature of sites promoting misinformation,” writes Wired, “it will remain easy for even a small group of unreliable sites to hijack social media to amplify misinformation.”

Conspiracy theory: Greed and gun violence accidentally unleashed COVID-19

In another finger-pointing bid, some conspiracy theorists believe in the following elaborate origin story for COVID-19: Coronavirus was created when China was trying to invent a biological agent to make protesters more docile, but the plan was scrapped when the resulting virus proved to be deadly. Then United States intelligence agents learned about coronavirus and had to have it for themselves. At the last minute, China tried to stop the United States but a shoot-out ensued, which released coronavirus into the air near Wuhan.

It’s a complicated story, but it sounds credible if you believe the source is a Chinese military officer motivated by the desire to tell the “truth,” which is how its source website, UFO Spotlight, positioned it. Snopes, however, debunked the story and traced it back to a fiction website. But people will believe what they want, and for some, this entirely made-up theory provides more comfort than the truth.

Conspiracy theory: Chinese eating habits caused the virus

Perhaps you’ve seen this one in your social media newsfeed. We certainly have. Yes, some people in China eat bats. But did this pandemic begin because bats are a delicacy for some in China? No. There is no evidence that eating bats, or for that matter, pangolins, caused the outbreak.

“When psychological states are peaked and people are anxious, they’re more apt to share [inaccurate] information,” Jen Grygiel, assistant professor in communications specialising in memes and social media at Syracuse University, told Rolling Stone. “We don’t know where COVID-19 came from, but it’s safe to say characterising the virus as a product of an entire country’s eating habits is inaccurate and wildly offensive,” Rolling Stone reports.

Conspiracy theory: It’s all a plot to make US President Donald Trump look bad

Some supporters of US President Donald Trump believe the Democratic Party conspired with China to engineer a pandemic to make him look bad. “I believe that because Russia didn’t work, and Ukraine didn’t work, and impeachment didn’t work,” stated commentator Josh Bernstein in an episode of the conservative podcast The NutriMedical Report, according to USA Today.

“They are so hell-bent on destroying this country [and] this president to gain back power that they probably worked with the Chinese government, and they devised this plan.” However, there is no evidence to support any such plot. Nor has Trump lost the support of those who supported him pre-pandemic.

Conspiracy theory: Two common FDA-approved drugs can prevent or treat COVID-19

A man in the United States died after taking chloroquine, something he had heard could prevent or cure coronavirus, CNN reports. The man and his wife were “afraid of getting sick” with COVID-19, according to his wife, who also became ill after ingesting the substance. The couple didn’t take a pharmaceutical version of the drug but a version of it used to clean fish tanks.

So, what is chloroquine, exactly? It is a well-established, FDA-approved treatment for malaria. In the days before the man’s death, the internet had been abuzz with the possibility that chloroquine drugs could cure COVID-19 after a press conference in which Trump spoke of it as the no-nonsense solution to the rising mortality rate. What Trump didn’t say, and what those who repeated his words failed to comprehend, is that this solution is highly theoretical, at best, at this point. “There are no FDA-approved therapeutics or drugs to treat, cure or prevent COVID-19,” although studies are underway, the FDA said in a clarification statement.

Conspiracy theory: COVID-19 is a ruse to distract us from a “doomsday” asteroid

A viral Facebook post claimed that NASA and the Vatican were hiding the discovery of an asteroid on its way to demolish our planet (similar to the doomsday asteroid in the Steve Carell film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World). What’s the best way to hide the discovery of a doomsday asteroid? By unleashing a deadly and highly contagious virus that forces people to stay home. We’re not sure this actually needs to be said, but just in case: This an utter falsehood, according to Snopes. That said, conspiracy theorists aren’t always wrong.