The Coronavirus Infodemic: Conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism

Never underestimate our capacity for foolishness:

“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.

If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.

You don't have to be a full-fledged, New World Order-fearing nut-job to fit into this category. We're all susceptible to this piper if we're not careful. It's tempting to create monsters where they don't (necessarily) exist, because monsters can be slain. But a natural world that is inherently dangerous and uncertain, that can create a virus so small it's invisible to the naked eye yet kills tens of thousands, is simply terrifying:

Rumors and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.

But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflecting falsehoods.

The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.

The feelings of security and control offered by such rumors may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.

Because so many people are anxious about the situation, I have temporarily suspended my usual fact-checking and polite interventions when friends post dubious information on Facebook. I've "unfollowed" about 10-12 folks because I don't want to see that stuff, and I'm embarrassed for the people doing it. But that's not a solution, it's a cop-out. So I will probably resume doing that. Here are some tips to keep me at bay:

Check the date of the article you're posting about. Something that happened in 2013 might very well have been outrageous, but if it's not happening now, it's not just irrelevant, it can obscure the real problems we are facing.

Check the integrity of your sources. Some groups like Occupy have blurred the lines, and need vigorous fact-checking.

Give legitimate journalists a chance to verify stories. Some "hot" news items are actually radioactive and not fresh out of the oven.

And always remember: Russia is still actively abusing social media to promote propaganda and undermine our democracy. And they get better at it every day. The vast majority of us have actually shared some of that on social media or talked about it in-person, we just didn't realize it.

Multiple, independent, and legitimate corroboration. If you Google something and all you see are chatrooms and messageboards, you're likely dealing with an unverified rumor crafted by a basement gremlin or spewed by a Fox News guest of dubious academic background. If you can't corroborate, don't disseminate.

Lecture over. Study chapters 12 through 15 for our next class...

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