On Wednesday, a video clip from a news report aired in 2015 on the TGR Leonardo show on RAI 3, discussing a coronavirus that was artificially engineered in China, went viral and caused wide alarm.
The report referred to a study published in the journal Nature about a particular gene from the bat virus SCH014 that Chinese researchers managed to insert into the human virus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), creating a hybrid virus that was able to infect mice.
The report about that experiment has led to a conspiracy theory alleging that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 was created in a lab by the Chinese, even though this month Nature published an editor’s note about the 2015 article to quash the misinterpretations: “We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus.”
Despite this rebuttal, the video has been shared widely on WhatsApp.
The conspiracy theory has also spread on other online platforms, shared by Matteo Salvini on Twitter and presented as an enlightening explanation of the coronavirus pandemic, complete with giant red dots and attention-grabbing exclamation points.
A conspiracy theory can have negative and harmful consequences, and, when it gains traction, it risks causing an “infection” of both the virtual and social networks.
Conspiracy theories are based on unreliable mechanisms for interpreting reality, and are not always the result of holding false beliefs. They can be intentionally constructed, engineered and amplified for political and strategic reasons.
Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist and the head of the Department of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Bristol, and John Cook, a cognitive scientist and researcher at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, have studied the causes and dynamics of conspiracy theories and have created a sort of handbook for “navigating” conspiracy-laden thinking.
According to Lewandowsky and Cook, conspiracy theories are characterized by seven main features, which they summarized by the acronym CONSPIR, which stands for Contradictory, Overriding suspicion, Nefarious intent, Something must be wrong, Persecuted victim, Immune to evidence and Re-interpreting randomness.
The first is the element of self-contradictory thinking: those who create and propose conspiracy theories appear to simultaneously believe in ideas that contradict each other. It does not matter that their reasoning is incoherent, the only thing that matters is to avoid believing the official version of the facts at any cost.
The second feature is a (pre-existing) attitude of overriding suspicion towards the official version of the facts: any element that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory should be dismissed. The conspiracy becomes reality itself, anything else is a distortion.
The third characteristic represents the most strategic aspect of these theories: “nefarious intent,” or presupposed bad faith. “The presumed motivations behind any assumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious,” Cook and Lewandowsky write. “Conspiracy theories never propose that the presumed conspirators have benign motivations.”
This is also linked to the fourth characteristic, a suspiciousness embodied by the notion that “something must be wrong with this picture,” with reality being classed as a deception, not the conspiracy theory.
Another aspect common to those who spread conspiracy theories is a feeling of victimhood, accompanied by a persecution mania: the conspiracy theorist presents themselves as a victim of organized persecution. At the same time, in their account they are a “brave antagonist” who stands up to the “villainous conspirators” (i.e. all those who don’t accept the conspiracy theory), thus having an ambivalent perception of themselves as a victim and a hero at the same time.
A sixth characteristic is that conspiracy theories are most often deliberately immune to all evidence—Cook and Lewandowsky call them “self-sealing.” Even if contrary evidence exists, it is reinterpreted in such a way that it is said to originate from the conspiracy itself. The stronger the evidence against the conspiracy theory, the more it is seen as a sign that the perpetrators of the conspiracy need their (false and constructed) version of the facts to be believed. An example: “Climate change does not exist, it is a conspiracy, and any scientists who offer proof that it exists and that it is caused by humans are in on it.” In short, a conspiracy theory sees conspiracies in everything.
Often, their manipulation of reality is so effectively deceptive that it makes such theories seem like a plausible alternative to reality. The more credible the conspiracy theory, the more dangerous its spread can be.
The mechanism of reinterpretation of evidence is also linked to the seventh characteristic: conspiracy theorists “re-interpret randomness,” reframing all coincidences in order to integrate them into the conspiracy itself.
In their view, nothing at all happens by chance, and everything is taken as evidence that the theory is the absolute truth: every detail, even the most irrelevant, is woven into a pattern of deception that can fit perfectly within the narrative of the alleged conspiracy.
But why do conspiracy theories spread so easily?
According to Cook and Lewandowsky, people who feel vulnerable and powerless tend to offer a favorable breeding ground for conspiracy theories.
Moreover, these theories allow one to deal with circumstances of immediate threat through identifying a scapegoat: a major event has to have an important reason behind it. From this point of view, it is a way to explain improbable and out-of-the-ordinary events: a sort of coping mechanism that offers some people an alternative way to manage uncertainty.
The presence of uncertainty is a fundamental requirement for conspiracy theories to succeed. They can be used as a rhetorical tool to escape uncomfortable conclusions or to challenge official political ideas, and are an inevitable ingredient of political extremism.
Accordingly, studies of “deradicalization” can provide us with guidance on how to “disarm” conspiracy theorists.
Social media tends to fuel the mechanisms behind conspiracy theories.
The lack of traditional gatekeepers (for example, newspapers – n.ed.), according to Cook and Lewandowsky, is one of the reasons why disinformation spreads more easily and quickly online, often driven by fake accounts, bots or trolls.
Similarly, those who regularly “consume” conspiracy theories are more inclined to like and share conspiracy posts on Facebook.
Cook and Lewandowsky identify two main avenues for fighting against these theories: prebunking and debunking.
The first one focuses on the major role of “prebunking” or “inoculation,” i.e. trying to defuse the mechanisms used by conspiracy theorists from the outset: “If people are preemptively made aware that they might be misled, they can develop resilience to conspiratorial messages.”
This process has two elements: “an explicit warning of an impending threat of being misled” and “refutation of the misinformation’s arguments.”
Debunking, on the other hand, is the unmasking of fictions or falsehoods using facts, logic, sources and empathy.
In other words, debunking can be fact-based, i.e. using accurate information that has the ability to disprove the theories, logic-based, able to explain the deceptive tactics and erroneous reasoning, source-based debunking, which unmasks the lack of credibility of conspiracy theorists, and “empathy-based” debunking which focuses on the effects on those being targeted by conspiracy theories.
However, debunking can also prove to be a double-edged sword, because it can unwittingly reinforce the conspiracy theories.
Empowering people and encouraging them to think analytically can be an effective tool to dismantle the false descriptions of reality on which conspiracy theories are based.
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