I spend a lot of time interviewing criminals, and their backgrounds are often a litany of social and economic malaise and abuse. The drivers of offending are so clear. Prison isn’t an aberration for these people; it’s an inevitability.
In these instances, crime is the symptom and we give great attention to it, yet the underlying causes are left largely overlooked.
And this led me to think about one of the great problems of our time; not the pandemic but one of the drivers that will inhibit us tackling it – the contagion of crazy.
Let’s begin in Washington on January 6, the day Trump supporters raided the US Capitol Building. In many ways this was entirely rational. Consider for a moment: you believe – truly believe – based on undeniable truths that an election had been stolen and that democracy was at risk, what is the right thing to do? The answer is fight.
Given that, the real issue at play is less the violent activity and more the underlying belief that the election was stolen being based, as it was, on utter fictions. Those who participated in the riot are being charged and convicted, as they should be. But unless the underlying cause of the problem is addressed, the issue will endure.
Similarly, the current pandemic creates a huge number of difficulties, but the fact that people hold such crackpot views about it will, without question, inhibit – perhaps prevent – solutions to it.
Among such views are the idea that the Covid-19 vaccine contains a microchip, or is part of a depopulation strategy designed to kill those who take it, or that the whole pandemic has been invented as a means of social control.
Fanciful and outrageous beliefs are hardly new – in fact, much of the rhetoric around this vaccine is remarkably similar to those in the past. What is new is their ability to spread so quickly and widely; like a contagion. And this lands at the feet of social media.
It used to be that each village had an idiot, but now those village idiots can converge online in communities, which create echo chambers that reinforce those beliefs. But if social media provides the oxygen, what about the initial spark?
The exact reasons why people are susceptible to disinformation are difficult to pin down, but research has shown a few factors that have some influence.
An authoritarian personality is one explainer, due to a tendency to blame others for problems and overestimate the power and competence of the state. Another is a personality drawn to paranormal thinking, which accepts supernatural forces influence all lives. A further influence is the social and economic status, whereby the seemingly simple explanations provided by a conspiracy allow a person of low social status to reassert control over their life.
Whatever the case, we do know for sure that conspiracies love company.
Once one conspiracy is believed by a person, research shows that those people are highly susceptible to others, even when the theories have no obvious relationship to each other. After all, if the government or other powerful forces can do one thing, then they are equally capable of doing another.
That’s why many among those who filled the Capitol Building were from Qanon, who hold a large number of utterly bizarre beliefs and ideas.
Similarly, among our Covid conspiracists, we have a number who also believe in Qanon, that cell phone 5G is poisonous, that Bill Gates is the head of some dark new world order, and that media are all in on some huge cover-up.
Not all of those who are vaccine hesitant will hold the craziest of beliefs, but almost all of them will have been influenced in part by people pushing them – even those holding the maddest ideas push more reasonable-sounding misinformation, often cherry-picking statistics or highlighting real examples in a context that distorts.
Some of the main purveyors of false information are making substantial amounts of money (as are the platforms that uphold them) either through social media revenue or selling snake oil. But most are simply driven by an unwavering conviction that they are doing the right thing.
Either way, the impacts are incredibly insidious and damaging. This is a problem whose symptoms will inhibit us from tackling myriad problems.
False information during Covid has given us an acute example of the dangers at play, given the significant risk to the health of communities and the economy, but it extends beyond this and it can’t be ignored. We need to devise deliberate ways of tackling it. In a future column, I will collect together the best thinking around doing just that.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist and the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury.
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