Why people believe Covid conspiracy theories: could folklore hold the answer?

Guardian Technology 26 Oct 2021 07:00


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Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them.

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships.

The tool enabled them to piece together the underlying stories in coronavirus conspiracy theories from fragments in online posts. The model that allows for narratives to be reconstructed from the noisy data of online updates, was designed by Prof Vwani Roychowdhury, who initiated the project, and was built by his team in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department at UCLA.

One discovery from the research identifies Bill Gates as the reason why conspiracy theorists connect 5G with the virus. With Gates’ background in computer technology and vaccination programmes, he served as a shortcut for these storytellers to link the two.

“Bill Gates is in Africa, he’s in everybody’s house because everybody’s got computers, and then he’s pushing these vaccines.”

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

The diagram below is a small section of the anti-vaccine stories that the researchers found.

One name comes up a lot. Why do people blame Gates for everything?

“He’s got information, he’s got computing power and he’s got more money than anyone else in the entire world.” And from that perspective, his philanthropy can be seen as suspect: “now he’s decided to tell you how to live your life”.

He is not elected or accountable and though people know there is a lot of money, they are not sure where it is all going, or why.

“Bill Gates is in Africa, he’s in everybody’s house because everybody’s got computers, and then he’s pushing these vaccines. And we already have prior storytelling about vaccines as threatening or dangerous or coming from the outside.”

“This whole idea of a blood libel. And poisoning the wells, why not throw that in. Poisoning the wells is very similar to this faulty vaccination movement. You see how these motifs circulate? And they are interchangeable, it’s like algebra.”

Partly it is Gates’ foray into global medicine that has given him omnipresent villain status, not to mention his contact with the likes of Jeffrey Epstein, but there are other factors that mean it is him and not Jeff Bezos or Larry Page, for example, who is at the centre of the conspiracy theory web.

“In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.”

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago a lack of trusted information.

Stories are good at getting our attention

Often the most gripping stories are about things we fear...

People turn to storytelling to help them deal with threats…

In a conspiracy theory universe...


... and Dr Anthony Fauci

... are part of an elaborate cabal

... and the Chinese government

... centered on Satan, involving priests, lords and outsiders, such as wanderers

... fund research facilities in China. The research is into bioweapons

... (in Danish folklore 'outsiders' often includes Norwegians)

... their goal is to destroy the US

... their goal is to destroy the Christian world

When these stories are false but people believe them, they can have damaging real-world consequences…

Many innocent people, mainly women, were killed in witchcraft trials. Today vaccine hesitancy is causing unnecessary deaths from coronavirus.

In a conspiracy theory universe...


... makes vaccinations using his research facilities but they are not intended to cure

... devise poisons or evil charms, using power from Satan

... the vaccinations are intended to sterilise

... the poison causes miscarriages

... and kill people

... and kills people and cows

Tangherlini uses an example to explain how a 18th-century Danish farmer could start with a sick cow and end up with a story about a witch.

“In contemporary retelling of this, it is one dimensional: ‘The farmers all believed that if their cow was sick, there was a witch.’ That’s not the way people believe in things”. It is more of a negotiation, he says.

The farmer has heard stories about witches poisoning cows, but one neighbour tells him he should change the hay in his barn. Another advises him to see a healer.

Everyone agrees the cow is sick. But this back and forth over the cause is a way of establishing the threat to that community, and what can save them from it. Surprising events and other people acting out their beliefs can create a reinforcement effect. And that is what the professor has seen on Reddit forums and Facebook groups today.

Cracking a conspiracy what’s the way out?

A diagram of story elements is not going to deradicalise someone who believes vaccines are implanting microchips in people’s arms. In our information overloaded world, more information is unlikely to change someone’s mind either. This project is more about understanding how these stories work rather than changing minds.

But it does raise one tantalising possibility that perhaps this mapping what one of the authors, Pavan Holur, calls “an AI mirror held up to online conversations” lets people see the totality of the belief system they are tying themselves into.

While someone might think vaccines are unsafe, they do not necessarily think 5G causes coronavirus.

“If people are looking at it and thinking ‘Wait a minute, I don’t trust at least this part of the narrative’,” Tangherlini says, “you might be able to fracture those low-probability links between domains. And if you can fracture or question them, you get the potential for community level change.”

With 98.8% of England’s coronavirus deaths in the first half of 2021 being people who were not fully vaccinated, anti-vaccine conspiracies have life and death consequences. Any interventions that loosen their grip could save lives.

In the end it was significant social change that shifted people’s beliefs on witches in Denmark. People were still telling witchcraft stories into the 1900s, centuries after they first appeared.

“Belief in stories about witchcraft in Denmark really started to drop off in the early 20th century. Multiple things were going on access to healthcare, WW1, more understanding of medicine and infection and the impact of radio. Now something people will say is, ‘There was a witch who used to live down there.’”

This article was amended on 27 October 2021 to clarify that while 5G uses radio wave frequencies, it is not the name of any wave itself.

  • Conspiracy in the time of corona: automatic detection of emerging Covid-19 conspiracy theories in social media and the news, by Shadi Shahsavari, Pavan Holur, Tianyi Wang , Timothy R Tangherlini and Vwani Roychowdhury, is published in National Library of Medicine

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TangherliniGatesBill GatesJeff BezosProf Timothy Tangherlini
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