In confusing times, they fulfil a need for knowledge and certainty
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories about its origin, potency, possible risks, and cures have become commonplace. Across the world, people resorted to many apparently irrational explanations and actions. This trend has gained momentum as vaccines are being rolled out. The start of vaccination in Bangladesh has encouraged many commentaries on the efficacy of the vaccine. Many have characterized the vaccine as not fit for humans.
The tendency is not a unique situation in Bangladesh -- we find conspiracy theories worldwide. In January, after vaccination started in the US, a pharmacist in Wisconsin purposefully destroyed hundreds of doses Covid-19 vaccines, believing the vaccine would alter human DNA. A few months back, after it was discovered that many Muslim attendees of a Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Delhi were infected by Covid-19, the term “corona jihad” appeared in India for referring to what was perceived as a form of “religious attack” on Hindus. A survey of social media also reflects that many people do believe such conspiracies. But why do people have trust in conspiracy theories?
Conspiracy theories could be defined as secret plots aimed to achieve some evil goals. These generate suspicion about actions of others -- the government, for instance. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories are not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic. They appear whenever there is a phenomenon of public interest, imminent crisis, or social upheaval. Even the recent US election espoused a lot of it about the election being rigged.
It is true, we do not trust everyone and everything. As humans we do have alternative perspectives originating from our distinct ways of being in the world. One common belief is that pharmaceutical companies are hiding vaccine efficacy. Some people believe the vaccine is a religious attack on Muslims, some believe the Indian vaccine is not safe enough, and may generate great side effects.
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are a progression from the conspiracy theories that explained the socio-religious vulnerability of certain groups to the disease. Many did not believe that the religious, the honest, the poor, or Bangladeshis were vulnerable to the disease. Covid-19 was perceived as a curse for the “sinners.” Now, the vaccines are recognized as a plot against “religious” people.
Social media is playing a crucial role in spreading conspiracy theories, as it has changed the way we consume and share information. For instance, anti-vaccine advocates could widely share information that people are contracting Covid-19 even after being vaccinated, and people’s conviction that the vaccine does not work becomes stronger.
Conspiracy theories serve certain psychological purposes. Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton, and Aleksandra Cichocka in a 2017 article argued, the first of the purposes is fulfilment of epistemic motives -- the need for knowledge and certainty, and the desire to have information.
As people wanted to know the causes and possible outcomes of Covid-19 and did not get enough “precise” information to make sense of the pandemic, they chose conspiracy theories that gave “specific and absolute” claims about the disease.
As such, people believed information that gave relevance to their overall categorization of people and their ideas about the world. We have learned since childhood that there are enemy nations, enemy religious groups, that certain lifestyles are good while others are bad. When conspiracy theories used comparable categorizations, people had trust in those explanations. That is why, people appearing to be Chinese were targeted as spreaders of the disease globally, Europeans were believed to be more vulnerable than Bangladeshis, or Muslims were identified as a source of Covid-19 in India.
Owing to the same logic, people readily believe that the Covid-19 vaccine holds haram/prohibited ingredients. It is not the first instance of this kind. The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was ignited when rumours spread that the cartridges and bullets were greased with pork and beef fat -- elements prohibited for Muslims and Hindus respectively. The troops were outraged as they needed to bite off the paper end of the cartridge before use. Because of the belief in a conspiracy against their religion, when ordered, they refused to load their weapons for firing drills.
This relates to the existential motives that conspiracy theories serve. We want to feel safe and in control of the world we live in. Thus, we find diverse explanations for a crisis like Covid-19. Many initially argued they were not vulnerable to Covid-19 as the disease is meant for the socio-religious enemies, then again after vaccination started, they turned to another explanation: If they are doomed (decided by the Almighty) then no vaccine could be useful.
Last but not the least, social motives help spread conspiracy theories and relate to contemporary social divisions. At present, humanity is divided on many fronts; differences along multitudes of identities -- economic, educational, regional, cultural, religious, political, occupational. The list is never-ending. With social divisions, people are prone to think themselves “good” in terms of the social group they belong to -- a form of collective narcissism in the chaotic world. It creates a form of bondage -- sense of belonging -- while social divisions are heightened. They produce a kind of explanation where the “others” are villains and destined for extinction.
With intensified divisions in society, where groups are not compatible and becoming intolerant of each other, conspiracy theories become the avenue where contradictory ideas are cultivated. Of course, we can find certain correlations with age and gender and belief in conspiracy theories. But at the root, there are social divisions and stark inequalities that cause people to resort to contradictory explanations.
Distrust grows with increasing division, and views/opinions become increasingly polarized. People only believe ideas that their ideology supports, refuting other views, and hence it becomes more difficult to erase conspiracy theories.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist, and teaches at the University of Dhaka.