COVID-19

Conspiracy theories have flourished during the pandemic – here’s how to stop them in their tracks

A man stands at a main hall for Internet Security Conference 2018 in Beijing, China September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1D39B89D00

Conspiracies can polarize societies and fuel extremism. Image: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The pandemic has given rise to many new conspiracy theories – and UNESCO wants to educate people to identify and debunk them.
  • Certain groups are more prone to being targeted, including particular religions and people with different sexual orientation.
  • Counter-actions include calling out false information, contacting the author, and taking care not to spread it further.

From those that question the moon landings to theories about JFK’s assassination, you don’t have to look far to find a conspiracy theory. And while we may find some of the most out-there theories laughable, the problem is, they’re not always easy to recognize.

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The internet is the perfect breeding ground for them, and the uncertainty created by the coronavirus outbreak is allowing them to flourish.

So UNESCO, the UN agency that supports education, the sciences, and culture, has launched a campaign to help people identify, debunk and report conspiracy theories to prevent their spread.

fake news false information conspiracy theories truth justice Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Conspiracy theories: What they are and how they flourish. Image: UNESCO

UNESCO is working with the European Commission, Twitter and the World Jewish Congress and has created a series of infographics to help people become better informed.

How conspiracy theories flourish

Conspiracy theories often start as a suspicion based on someone benefiting from an event or situation. ‘Evidence’ is then forced to fit around the theory. It can be hard to refute them because the person doing so is often seen as part of the conspiracy.

fake news false information conspiracy theories truth justice Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Check before sharing. Image: UNESCO

The theories can spread rapidly, particularly over social media, where people are easily taken in by them. Others spread them because they want to deliberately provoke or manipulate. Conspiracy theories can often target or discriminate against an entire group which are perceived to benefit. Some groups are particularly prone to being targeted, including people of particular religions or sexual orientation. For example, various conspiracies have falsely accused groups including people of assumed Asian origin, Jews and Muslims as spreading COVID-19 in Europe.

As a result, conspiracies can polarize societies, worsen existing tensions and fuel violent extremism.

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How to stop them spreading

fake news false information conspiracy theories truth justice Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Prebunking and debunking. Image: UNESCO

Key to stopping the spread of conspiracy theories is educating people to be on the lookout for misleading information – and teaching them to be suspicious of certain sources. But there is no hard and fast rule as to how best to identify or react to potentially damaging and misleading information. It can be particularly difficult when the theories are being sent from friends and family.

fake news false information conspiracy theories truth justice Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
Concrete counter-actions. Image: UNESCO

The link to COVID-19

Uncertainty and worry create the perfect environment for conspiracies to be born. Although it is still not confirmed where or how COVID-19 originated, theories abound. They largely ignore scientific evidence and attempt to come up with reasons why the pandemic happened and who stands to benefit.

fake news false information conspiracy theories truth justice Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
The link to COVID-19. Image: UNESCO
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