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How to debunk COVID-19 conspiracy theories

The novel coronavirus was not created in a lab

Woman in facemask walking past graffitied wall in Madrid
A woman wears a protective mask and gloves as she walks past graffiti which reads ‘to be, to stay and to last’ (L), ‘Covid19. Government Weapon’ (C) and ‘Paranoia’ (R) in Madrid center on March 15, 2020 in Madrid, Spain.
Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

In the whirlwind of news about the novel coronavirus pandemic, it can be hard to figure out what’s a scam or rumor and what’s vital information. The ways in which the COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has transformed the way we work and keep ourselves entertained already feels unreal.

To understand why there’s so much misinformation out there — for example, that the virus was purposely created in a lab — The Verge spoke with John Cook, a cognitive science researcher at George Mason University and one of the authors of a new Conspiracy Theory Handbook. A big fan of acronyms, Cook came up with a handy one to recognize when you or someone you know might be headed down a conspiracy theory rabbit hole and how to “inoculate” ourselves and others against it.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why are you publishing this handbook now? Why should we be thinking about conspiracy theories at a time like this?

We had [the release of the handbook] planned for April, you know, and usually, I’m not that organized that I happen to have something done a month early. But once we just saw all the conspiracy theories and the misinformation flying around about the novel coronavirus, and that it was actively directly endangering the public, we thought, “We need to make this information accessible to people. There’s no point waiting a month if it’s ready to go now.”

Is there one conspiracy theory you’re really concerned about?

You have politicians in the US pushing the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was bioengineered by a Chinese lab. And then you had retaliation to that. You had Chinese officials pushing the conspiracy theory that the US bioengineered the virus. We talked about this in the book, that there are tactical conspiracy theories. They’re not always just a guy with a tinfoil hat in his basement talking on his laptop. It can be actual governments intentionally constructing conspiracy theories for strategic reasons. And so when you have governments pushing out all these conspiracy theories, they’re quite distracting. It’s not what we need when we need governments all working together to address a global pandemic like this.

Why are those particular conspiracy theories harmful?

So when you have conspiracy theories spreading around, one of the things it does is it erodes public trust in institutions, particularly government institutions and medical institutions, who provide accurate information. One way that that can cause damage is then the public doesn’t follow the advice that comes from these institutions. So if you have the CDC advising the public to maintain social distancing, don’t gather in public events, don’t go to restaurants, don’t go to concerts or pubs. People are distrusting that advice because it comes from a mainstream institution, then the conspiracy theories are now distracting. And that has direct implications because people start behaving in ways that not only endanger themselves but endanger the public in general.

Twenty-nine percent of Americans believe the virus was created in a lab, according to new data from the Pew Research Center. Why has the conspiracy theory about the virus being engineered in labs become so popular?

In the handbook, we talk about different conditions that make the public more vulnerable to conspiracy theories, more likely to gravitate toward them. And I think the two that are really applicable to this situation is the feeling of powerlessness and coping with threat.

When people feel vulnerable, believing in conspiracy theories gives them more of a feeling of control. It seems almost counterintuitive because why would imagining that this is secret conspirators in a lab generating a virus, why does that make people feel more in control? Because at least that’s an explanation. And if the explanation is just random things happen in nature; people don’t like randomness. We prefer to have causal explanations. We prefer to have meaning in the way that we understand what happens in the world. And so conspiracy theories offer meaning. We’re more vulnerable to them when we feel powerless, when we feel threatened and we need to get a sense of control.

How do you debunk theories like this when you come across them?

There’s a range of different solutions that we list in the handbook. And I think that the general principle that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies. It’s better to inoculate people preemptively against conspiracy theories rather than trying to go in afterward and undo the damage. It’s easier to inoculate people against getting infected by a conspiracy theory, rather than trying to convince the conspiracy theorists that the conspiracy theory is not true.

But also when you do address conspiracy theories, do it in a way that doesn’t reinforce or promote them. Basically, inoculation is delivering misinformation in a weakened form by explaining how it can’t be true and explaining what the facts are instead. For example, with the conspiracy theory that the novel coronavirus was created in a lab, scientists have found that it has natural origins.

If your goal is to convince conspiracy theorists, then an empathetic approach is necessary just to have a genuine dialogue.