It's a hoax. It's a plot to plunge us into feudalism. It's an act of bio-terror. Conspiracy theorists are having a field day spinning their nonsense thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
BBC Future has a look at what makes otherwise intelligent people believe, and circulate, myths about the coronavirus.
At worst, the ideas themselves are harmful... But even seemingly innocuous ideas could lure you and others into a false sense of security, discouraging you from adhering to government guidelines, and eroding trust in health officials and organisations.
There’s evidence these ideas are sticking. One poll by YouGov and the Economist in March 2020 found 13% of Americans believed the Covid-19 crisis was a hoax, for example, while a whopping 49% believed the epidemic might be man-made. And while you might hope that greater brainpower or education would help us to tell fact from fiction, it is easy to find examples of many educated people falling for this false information.
Part of the problem arises from the nature of the messages themselves.
We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate. As BBC Future has described in the past, purveyors of fake news can make their message feel “truthy” through a few simple tricks, which discourages us from applying our critical thinking skills – such as checking the veracity of its source. As the authors of one paper put it: “When thoughts flow smoothly, people nod along.”
Eryn Newman at Australian National University, for instance, has shown that the simple presence of an image alongside a statement increases our trust in its accuracy – even if it is only tangentially related to the claim. A generic image of a virus accompanying some claim about a new treatment, say, may offer no proof of the statement itself, but it helps us visualise the general scenario. We take that “processing fluency” as a sign that the claim is true.
For similar reasons, misinformation will include descriptive language or vivid personal stories. It will also feature just enough familiar facts or figures – such as mentioning the name of a recognised medical body – to make the lie within feel convincing, allowing it to tether itself to our previous knowledge.
Even the simple repetition of a statement – whether the same text, or over multiple messages – can increase the “truthiness” by increasing feelings of familiarity, which we mistake for factual accuracy. So, the more often we see something in our news feed, the more likely we are to think that it’s true – even if we were originally sceptical.
These tricks have long been known by propagandists and peddlers of misinformation, but today’s social media may exaggerate our gullible tendencies. Recent evidence shows that many people reflexively share content without even thinking about its accuracy.
Classic psychological research shows that some people are naturally better at overriding their reflexive responses than others. This finding may help us understand why some people are more susceptible to fake news than others.
Researchers like [University of Regina, psychology researcher, Gordon]Pennycook use a tool called the “cognitive reflection test” or CRT to measure this tendency. CRT questions are not so much a test of raw intelligence, as a test of someone’s tendency to employ their intelligence by thinking things through in a deliberative, analytical fashion, rather than going with your initial intuitions. The people who don’t do this are often called “cognitive misers” by psychologists, since they may be in possession of substantial mental reserves, but they don’t “spend” them.
Cognitive miserliness renders us susceptible to many cognitive biases, and it also seems to change the way we consume information (and misinformation).
...Matthew Stanley, at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has reported a similar pattern in people’s susceptibility to the coronavirus hoax theories. Remember that around 13% of US citizens believed this theory, which could potentially discourage hygiene and social distancing. “Thirteen percent seems like plenty to make this [virus] go around very quickly,” Stanley says.
Testing participants soon after the original YouGov/Economist poll was conducted, he found that people who scored worse on the CRT were significantly more susceptible to these flawed arguments.
These cognitive misers were also less likely to report having changed their behaviour to stop the disease from spreading – such as handwashing and social distancing.
...There is no panacea. Like our attempts to contain the virus itself, we are going to need a multi-pronged approach to fight the dissemination of dangerous and potentially life-threatening misinformation.
And as the crisis deepens, it will be everyone’s responsibility to stem that spread.