Conspiracy theories during times of crisis

Global, or personal, times of crisis can make us feel scared, anxious, uncertain or angry, as our lives are impacted in ways we aren’t expecting. Times of crisis also leave people looking for certainty, and reasons why they find themselves in particular situations. These feelings leave us susceptible to conspiracy theories that offer ‘explanations’ – often for the inexplicable.

Below we take a look at the rise of conspiracy theories during times of crisis, and ways we can connect with people who may believe in them.

What is a conspiracy theory?

American academic Michael Barkun defines a conspiracy theory as “the belief that an organisation made up of individuals or groups was, or is, acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end”.  And some conspiracies do exist. We’ve seen many examples of conspiracy theories that have been proven true, from Watergate to the poisoning of alcohol during prohibition.

But most conspiracy theories are not about single incidents or plots – they often describe huge, overarching plans by people, or groups, who are out to control the whole of society. And they are very hard to disprove, because mass deceptions or cover ups, by their very nature, cannot be seen. And if you can’t prove something exists, you likewise can’t disprove it.

In order to address the impact that conspiracy theories can have on people’s health and relationships, it’s important to counter opinion with fact as much as possible, and critically analyse the information we receive.

Current, and past, conspiracies

Along with the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is arguably the most widespread crisis of modern times. Many people around the world have lost relatives and friends, or had their own health impacted. Job losses have been widespread and many countries are now in a recession. This ongoing fear and uncertainty has seen a marked rise in the popularity and spread of conspiracy theories, from the 5G conspiracy theory to the rise of QAnon, as people look for answers.

Conspiracy theories have also been popular during other times of crisis throughout history. One example was the Russian Flu of 1889, where the New York Times ran an article blaming electric light for the transmission of the virus. The introduction of the telephone came with claims that the crackling sounds were making people sick and, in a more recent example, health workers have struggled to counteract the spread of Ebola in the Congo because of conspiracy theorists who claimed the virus has manufactured.

While conspiracy theories have always been part of society, a major difference in what we see today is the prevalence of social media and web platforms (including the dark web), such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, You Tube, 4 Chan, and 8kun. These platforms enable conspiracy theories to spread very widely in a very short time frame – a phenomenon the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling an infodemic (in relation to COVID 19 conspiracy theories).

Why are we attracted to conspiracy theories?

Anyone can become susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories, particularly during times of crisis.

Some drivers include:

  • Fear and the need for stability: Humans like certainty, and we look for solutions when faced with stressful situations or traumatic events. Having seemingly ‘simple’ answers help make us feel like we are in control, and therefore less afraid of the unknowns.
  • Tribalism / Social reasons: Humans are tribal by nature and uniting around a common cause (and often against a particular group) may offer a sense of belonging and control.
  • They give us some power: When people ‘discover’ something outside official, mainstream sources they can feel powerful and knowledgeable, especially when they share these theories with others.
  • Motivated / directional reasoning: The Conversation took a look at motivated reasoning as a possible driver for believing in conspiracy theories. This is where people align themselves with conspiracy theories that help establish, or back up, their existing political or world views. For example, supporting theories that will make opposing political parties or views look bad, or responsible for a crisis.
  • Not visiting a wide range of sources: People may engage with conspiracy theories as the sources they are visiting are presenting these theories as facts. The truth may also be complex, and people may be unsure about which sources are trustworthy.

What are the dangers of conspiracy theories?

Belief in conspiracy theories can impact on many aspects of people lives.

Possible consequences may include:

  • Sparking conflict between people: Conspiracy theories can divide families and affect friendships when lives become dominated by these beliefs, and people defend them at the expense of their relationships with others.
  • Increase in prejudices: In a 2019 study Jolley, Meleady and Douglas found that when a conspiracy is framed around blaming a certain group of people or race, beliefs in these theories tended to make people more prejudiced towards this group which the researchers concluded may have “potentially damaging and widespread consequences for intergroup relations”.
  • Spreading fear and misinformation and undermining trust: False or misleading information can have damaging consequences. The UN has launched a campaign to dispel COVID-19 conspiracy theories as people who don’t believe in the virus (or the subsequent preventative health advice) are posing a significant risk to public health.
  • Undermines Trust: Conspiracy theories undermine trust in institutions like the WHO or the UN. A recent study backed this up, with researchers finding that conspiracy theories had severe societal effects in the context of COVID-19, including “low institutional trust and less societal engagement”.

How to connect with others who may believe in conspiracy theories

  • Acknowledge their feelings: As mentioned, a large part of engagement with conspiracy theories is driven by fear and lack of control. The best thing you can do to help others through difficult times is to actively listen and assure them that feeling scared or uncertain is completely normal.
  • Challenge the argument (gently) but not the person: Find out as much as you can about what someone believes and have an open discussion with them. Ask questions, model fair and respectul debate, where everyone gets space to talk. The more we hear from others, the less likely we are to see things in “black and white”. Don’t push – if you can’t agree, let it go for a while, and focus on building trust and respect.
  • Encourage people to think critically: Demonstrate the need to examine opinions and ideas, and where they come from. Your goal should not be to stop people from talking about things you don’t approve of, or to change their minds – rather to expose people to different sources and perspectives.
  • While giving people the space to speak, also show people that you are more likely to agree with them, or at least understand them, if their position is backed by accurate facts and logic.  Point them to trusted sources where they can check facts and avoid "fake news".  This can be hard, because mainstream media is often seen as part of “the conspiracy” so don’t expect people will be open to suggestions immediately. Keeping the conversation open is a great start to ongoing respectful debate.

For COVID-19 help, information and advice Contact us.

Advice and support

If you would like further advice and support on how best to help someone you care about, contact our Step Together helpline workers.

Last updated:

18 Oct 2023

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