How much do we believe in conspiracy theories?
Was the great financial crisis of 2008 the product of a hidden plan? The coronavirus was secretly designed in a laboratory and its spread is not fortuitous?
These and other questions could fit with what we in the social sciences call a “conspiracy theory.” This concept refers to the belief in explanations of certain facts that are alternatives to the official version. For example, the existence of secret groups or plans that deliberately spread a falsified version of reality in order to obtain some benefit.
Among other possible reasons, the prolonged institutional mistrust and the emergence of digital media as a communication ecosystem have caused these theories to be everywhere today.
Does Spanish society believe in conspiracy theories?
We know many of the psychological mechanisms that illustrate why we are prone to believe in these kinds of explanations. In many cases, they go through the reduction of uncertainty and an attempt to build group responses to the feeling of being vulnerable to potential threats.
However, in Spain not many studies have been carried out based on large and representative samples of the population. At least that was the case until 2017. Then, a team of experts from the Universities of Huelva, Granada and Vigo conducted an investigation that has been carried out as part of the 5th Wave of the Citizen Panel for Social Research in Andalusia (PACIS ), funded by the Institute for Advanced Social Studies (IESA-CSIC).
Said study is based on the administration of a survey of 1,103 Andalusian people, a highly representative probabilistic sample of Andalusian society.
The results do not leave us indifferent, since it seems to have installed a wide distrust among citizens. For example, many Andalusians join the idea that it is probable or very probable that “many things happen in the world of which we are not informed”.
On a more specific level, some conspiracy statements garnered strong support. This is the case of the belief that “the Doñana fire has a lot to do with the approval of the modification of the Forestry Law, with which 45% of the population showed a high level of agreement (on a scale of 1 to 7, a score equal to or greater than 6 points).
Following this same logic, ideas such as that “the financial crisis was deliberately caused by politicians and big businessmen” also garnered 48% support.
Even conspiracy theories with a strong sexist brand gained relative popular support. For example, one in four people surveyed strongly agreed that “the government deliberately hides the numbers of men who are abused by women.”
A social profile for each conspiracy theory
If we ask ourselves what type of person tends to support these types of beliefs more often, we find that there is no single sociological profile that indicates those who are most likely to believe in conspiracy theories. However, age, religiosity or political orientation are some of the factors that must be considered.
According to this same study, the profile differs depending on the type of conspiratorial belief in question. For example, the belief in “Eurabia” or an alleged invasion of Islam is greater among older Andalusians, associated with the political spectrum of the right and who declare themselves Catholic.
In contrast, the belief that politicians and big business people deliberately caused the economic crisis is more popular among Andalusians who sympathize with the left.
There is a relationship between the growing diffusion of these conspiracy theories and changes in the patterns of information consumption by society. For example, our team has confirmed that there is a high degree of distrust and lack of credibility on the part of the public regarding the information received.
Furthermore, as we have recently published, it also seems clear that an intense use of digital social networks (which substitute other media as a source of information) is associated with greater support for this type of belief.
The pandemic, fertile ground for the conspiratorial mentality
If a scenario of uncertainty drives the creation and spread of conspiracy theories, it seems clear that the pandemic is a perfect breeding ground for them. Conspiracy theories also flourish in crisis situations.
To explain this phenomenon and other social aspects of the pandemic scenario, our team from the University of Huelva (ESEIS / COIDESO) has been part, together with social scientists from 67 other countries, in an ambitious international project entitled Covid-19 study on Social & Moral Psychology.
This research has shown that, in Spain, our degree of belief in these conspiratorial explanations about covid-19 is significant, although very similar to the average of the group of countries studied.
We have detected, for example, that more than a fifth of the Spanish population (21.9%) shows a high degree of agreement with the idea that the coronavirus “is a biological weapon designed by scientists”.
It is also found that 18% show a great agreement that covid-19 “is a conspiracy to end, definitively, the rights of citizens and establish an authoritarian system.”
The danger of believing in conspiracy theories
These data do not facilitate the work of our health authorities or the tasks of containing the disease. In fact, recent research, such as the one we see in this article, shows that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with less compliance with health recommendations during the pandemic.
Because of its ubiquity and the ease with which we now have access to a great deal of unconfirmed information, it is not unlikely that many readers of this text have helped, even unconsciously, to propagate some of these conspiracy theories.
Perhaps it is time to recover a more leisurely and more conscientious way of consuming and transferring information to the people around us, also during the covid-19 pandemic.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original.
The signatories are not salaried, or consultants, nor do they own shares, nor do they receive financing from any company or organization that can obtain benefit from this article, and they have declared that they lack relevant links beyond the academic position mentioned above.