Anyone Can Fall for a Conspiracy Theory — Even You

The coronavirus pandemic is a breeding ground for false beliefs

Lydia Smith
Published in
4 min readAug 19, 2020


Illustration: María Medem

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theories to emerge. Coronavirus is an engineered bioweapon made by the Chinese. It originated in a lab in Wuhan, or was created by the U.S. military. It’s an evil plot devised by Bill Gates to enforce mass vaccination and control us. It was caused by 5G masts broadcasting electromagnetic waves.

Conspiracy theorists have existed for decades, but in recent years, they’ve become more prominent and their beliefs more mainstream. Recent data from the Pew Research Center suggest that a third of Americans believe coronavirus was created in a laboratory. In 2018, a study out of Cambridge found that 60% of Brits believe in at least one conspiracy theory, including that the “harmful effects” of vaccines are being deliberately hidden from the public by the British government.

And now, with the spread of coronavirus and the subsequent economic fallout, it feels like more people than ever are giving credence to wild theories. Here’s why strange times invite conspiratorial thinking, and how to combat it when you see it in action.

Conspiracy theories are about comfort…

Few people imagined a global pandemic would infect millions around the world in just a few months, killing hundreds of thousands of people and ravaging economies. Conspiracies can provide a sense of security in a time of crisis. With our health, lives, and jobs upended, many are feeling unsettled and looking for answers.

“Conspiracy theories derive their appeal from the fact that they can be comforting,” says Jovan Byford, a senior psychology lecturer at the Open University whose research focuses on shared beliefs and conspiracy theories.“This may seem counterintuitive, as at first sight, there is little that is comforting in a tale of evil people seeking to cause harm to the public, destroy whole nations or religions, or establish a sinister ‘world order.’ But what these theories do is provide a sense of control.”

In times of war, social and political crises, and pandemic, our social machinery breaks down. The available ways of making sense of the world often seem…