This transmission electron microscope image shows the coronavirus virus that causes COVID-19. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


Is the lack of general trust increasing the extent of conspiracy theories in society?

Conspiracy theories seem to satisfy the psychological needs of people to make sense of what they don’t understand.
<a href="" target="_self">clement liu</a>

clement liu

July 24, 2022
Throughout history, people who believe in conspiracy theories have always been seen as a small minority. Today, however, from the emergence of COVID-19 and question marks surrounding its origins and handling, it seems that more and more people are believing in conspiracy theories.

What accounts for the increased conspiracy theory believers? Many different causes might have led to the rise of conspiracy theories in society, but the most significant ones are part of human nature and trust. Because of this, it can be assumed that the decrease in general trust in society has increased the potency of conspiracy theories.

Author and researcher, Calance Madalina, wrote that the five conditions that allow for the perseverance of a conspiracy theory include historical context, the instability of modern times, opposing beliefs regarding systems of society, high uncertainty and the human need to explain the unexplainable. American society became the fertile ground Madalina describes in a time of panic and crisis with a worldwide pandemic and government institutions being questioned. 

During the start of the global pandemic, the U.S. seemed relatively safer than other countries as the cases were lower and spreading seemed to be limited. After COVID-19 began to spread in America, many other countries such as China and Italy had already had intense spreads that resulted in national shutdowns to contain the virus.

However, in America, the situation was not taken as seriously. Although it was apparent that the virus had a significant negative impact on other countries, the U.S. government did not take measures to shut down the country immediately but rather reassured the public that the situation would be fine.

When the virus first spread to the United States, President Donald Trump told citizens: “We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine.” However, even after multiple assurances of America’s safety, the coronavirus still spread throughout the states quickly.

Since the government continuously reassured the public of their safety and refused to shut down the country, the public did not know what to think when the situation worsened. This led to a major boom in the formation of conspiracy theories. 

According to International Criminology, a common theme of governments using the severity of the virus as a way to control citizens became the basis for many conspiracy theories that spread throughout social media. The string of contradicting government actions and statements led to a build-up of distrust among the American public and allowed for newly created conspiracy theories to have a larger impact on their opinions. 

As previously stated, crisis situations cause a significant rise in conspiracy theories. Why? Because these situations cause uncertainties that then cause decreased trust in society, between people, and between people and institutions. Similar to the COVID-19 situation in America, governmental decisions that lower their credibility are highly likely to result in government-related conspiracy theories. 

Conspiracy theories seem to satisfy the psychological needs of people to make sense of what they don’t understand. The lack of general trust toward each other and authority increases the persistence of conspiracy theories in society. This creates an unprecedented loop of distrust leading to conspiracy theories that further erode trust. They generate a vicious positive feedback loop destabilizing our society today.

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