According to a study in Political Psychology, "'conspiracy theories' are attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors."
We got a chance to speak with Dr. Jordan Axt, a professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University, about the eruption of theories since the start of the pandemic and why they spread in the first place.
Questions and responses have been edited for clarity.
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How and when do conspiracy theories spread — particularly ones about COVID-19?
People have felt out of control for six months now. Even the experts have said they aren't 100% what is going on and the research is changing.
But that's what happens when you conduct more and more research into a topic — you discover things you may or may not have known before.
They may change their recommendations or suggestions, but that can come across as inconsistency to someone not following things closely. Really it's just new data.
One link between releasing fake news and conspiracy theories is the desire to see the world as structured. People vary in the way that they want and need their world to be structured and consistent and feel a sense of control.
A lot of psychological research has shown that people who have a high need for structure or control over their own lives will be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories because they may not be finding this structure satisfaction in other areas.
So they lean into these theories that offer a compelling account of "secret underworkings of the world that you don't know about," rather than having to accept the world as a random place.
What harm can conspiracy theories cause?
They can become very unhealthy and very dangerous.
People can tailor their "media diet," so there's less cross-talk about what people read and consume.
It seems like the subjective notion of truth is being chipped away, so we can't even agree on the very basic things.
Pizzagate, for example, started off as this very harmless and fringe theory, but now it's led to a very dangerous situation.
Especially with COVID-19, messages are changing and studies are changing, but the ways in which we pitch the context are, too.
If you want to find evidence to say it's not that threatening, you can find the number to support that. But if you want to find the numbers to say that it is, you can find that, too.
All it takes is the motivation to find the conclusion that you want to support.
And with the proliferation of social media, it's not hard to find a site that supports what you already believe.
How do we get people to protect themselves from fake news?
Read the articles. Don't just share the headlines.
Try to expose yourself to news sources that are more reputable.
But also those that vary along your ideological slant so that you're exposed to different opinions. Then you can kind of weigh that evidence.
That goes both ways, too. The media also needs to focus less on readership and ratings and focus more on value, as well.
And this isn't something that is specific to the pandemic. We see it on all topics, all over the world.
In terms of a truly airtight answer, the science just isn't there yet.