Here's Why Aussies Keep Buying Into Conspiracy Theories
A confusing COVID information "vacuum" saw countless Aussies buy into wild theories about 5G, vaccines and microchips, conspiracy experts say, with an information war being waged on social media.
Emergency and health authorities are battling not only the real-world pandemic, but waging a war in cyberspace, forced to continually debunk claims and reassure citizens that viral COVID theories are simply false.
At its most extreme, dozens of phone towers worldwide have been torched over claims 5G is somehow linked to coronavirus.
"There is unfortunately a lot of very silly misinformation out there," chief medical officer Brendan Murphy said last weekend.
"It is complete nonsense."
While wild claims about vaccines or 5G aren't new, with large online communities existing for years, experts in conspiracy theory and online misinformation say such theories have been meshed with current coronavirus fear.
"There's a hard 'core' of these groups, with fairly stable communities built over time on Facebook or specialised fringe platforms," Professor Axel Bruns, an internet studies expert at the Queensland University of Technology, told 10 daily.
"There are people who are really committed to these causes, day in and day out. They fit whatever happens in the world into that, so as coronavirus appears, they'll make a connection and bring that in."
Dr M Dentith, a University of Waikato teaching fellow with a research focus in conspiracy theory, agreed.
"I don't think I've seen a new novel conspiracy theory on COVID," they told 10 daily.
"Often they just use existing theories. Every time a new technology launches, for instance, someone claims it will bring about the end of the world."
However, it's harder to pinpoint exactly what kind of person spreads such theories -- and some experts, like information warfare and online misinformation expert Tom Sear, say such a quest may do more harm than good.
“Ultimately it’s not helpful to characterise conspiracy theorists as paranoid, deluded and uneducated and a small proportion of the population," Sear, from UNSW Canberra Cyber at the Australian Defence Force Academy, told 10 daily.
"Conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19 are likely to be extremely widespread and far more common that we might expect."
Sear said many COVID theories spreading in Australian groups first emerged in America. Once picked up by ordinary citizens, he said Australian society can be a fertile breeding ground.
"Conspiracy flows through from these relatable, sticky social networks, because Australia is a more integrated, compact society than the US, and most of us would be connected to people who hold quite diverse views," Sear said.
"It’s like the virus itself -- any of us could get it if we’re in the right place and time to be infected."
Bruns said such theories can be hard to debunk.
"Once authorities respond and say it's not true, conspiracy theorists say 'we're onto something, they're trying to deny it'," he said.
Associate Professor Ullrich Ecker, from the University of Western Australia's school of psychological science, said the "self-sealing nature" of such theories "makes them irrefutable".
"If you present evidence against a conspiracy you could be portrayed as part of the conspiracy,” he said.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram are working to remove coronavirus misinformation, and direct people to legitimate sources.
This week, a clip from film 'Plandemic' attracted millions of views before being removed from many sites due to promotion of false or debunked theories. Facebook said the film's claim that wearing a mask may cause infection "could lead to imminent harm".
Other dangerous COVID theories include false claims about 'treatments', like drinking hot water or bleach.
Ecker said support for such theories comes "when people suffer a loss of control or feel threatened".
Bruns linked it to confusion.
"Early in the pandemic, nobody knew what it was. When you've got an information vacuum in a crisis, people try to fill it," he said.
"For all the efforts authorities make, they can't make everything clear. So people start to look at social networks, maybe sources they wouldn't normally trust; but when it's believable, expressed with confidence, people latch on."
A federal parliamentary committee report into Australia's 5G network, tabled Tuesday, spoke of similar concerns.
“Community confidence in 5G has been shaken by extensive misinformation preying on the fears of the public spread via the internet, and presented as facts,” it said.
Dentith said it was difficult to pinpoint a specific type of person more susceptible to conspiracies.
"Some may have grown up with a mistrust in science or authority. A small cohort will be able to cite reasons and examples, but some are suspicious of the 'official narrative' simply because they think these people aren't trustworthy," they said.
This may make folk eager to back even more outlandish theories -- like, in one conspiracy, the pandemic being concocted to force people into vaccinations containing 5G microchips -- instead of simpler, official explanations.
"If you're suspiciously minded, scientists or officials covering up or being complicit is a natural thought," Dentith said.
"There's no one type of person... It boils down to education, I say, more than anything. Most of us are not trained to deal with complex theories and situations."
Murphy's criticisms of "nonsense" conspiracies came after an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne. He's not the only authority forced to debunk such claims.
On Monday, NSW Health reiterated "COVID-19 does not spread via mobile networks or wireless technology", calling such allegations a "MYTH". On Wednesday, NSW Police social media posted "Good morning to everyone except people who think 5G causes Coronavirus."
Social networks are working to quash misinformation, but Sear said attacking people believing such conspiracy theories won't work. Instead, he suggested "similar responses to controlling outbreaks of conspiracy theory as we do to the pandemic."
"What if we thought about conspiracy theories as if they were a public health problem? We don’t blame people for getting sick, but we act swiftly to contain the risk of infection," Sear said.
"What are we doing well around COVID19 that we could apply to the spread of conspiracies? Crises tend to bring Australians together into community, rather than fragment and polarise us, and that is the herd immunity we need to buffer against extreme views and conspiracy.
"Plus we consider having a healthy bulls**t detector a national trait, which always helps.”