Conspiracy theories and COVID-19

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Misinformation related to COVID-19 constitutes an “infodemic”, the World Health Organisation warned in February 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the first in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed and connected.

But that same technology is amplifying misinformation and conspiracy theories that jeopardise and undermine the global response to control the pandemic.

The who, what and how of conspiracies

A new project led by Professor Peter Knight from the University of Manchester has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through UK Research and Innovation’s COVID-19 rapid response fund.

The aim is to understand how and why conspiracy narratives circulate on different platforms and online spaces.

Professor Knight said:

The coronavirus pandemic is a perfect storm for conspiracy theories. Some people have had a lot of time on their hands, and little social contact. Social media mean misinformation can spread quickly and widely. Conspiracy theories have flourished.

Knight and a team of co-investigators are researching where COVID-19 conspiracies came from, how they mutated during the pandemic and how they’ve contributed to community and division.

Knight continued:

We’re investigating who has been promoting and spreading conspiracy theories, what form they take on various social media platforms, and why some theories have gained more traction than others.

We will also assess the effectiveness of the varying interventions by social media companies.

Combatting COVID-19 conspiracy theories

Knight’s previous research has found that direct debunking of conspiracy theories has only a limited effect, so part of the project will focus on finding better ways to combat them.

The team will produce resources for teachers and for journalists, who can find themselves unsure how to confront misinformation, and subject to hate mail and social media pile-ons for reporting on the pandemic.

In the meantime, how can the public spot a conspiracy theory from the truth?

Knight says:

Conspiracy theories have telltale traits. They tend to be circular in their reasoning, they frame events as the result of deliberate, intentional plans rather than the results of complex forces. They divide the world into black and white, good versus evil and rely on dubious forms of evidence.

Often there’s a kernel of truth, even if they then wind up wildly exaggerated. Our aim isn’t to dismiss conspiracy theorists merely as crackpots, because these beliefs tend to come from real-world grievances.

We must instead try to understand where that sense of resentment comes from, even if we criticise the content of the conspiracy theories.

The Infodemic project will run until August 2021.

Last updated: 12 January 2021

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