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The psychology of a conspiracy theorist

Even before Bryan Adams’s ill-considered Instagram meltdown where the Canadian singer accused the “bat-eating” Chinese of starting the coronavirus, the Chinese had come in for abuse. Conspiracy theories have contributed to a rise in Sinophobia.

In a recent report on a Toronto radio station, a city that prides itself on being one of the most multi-cultural in the world, a Canadian woman of Chinese background, who had lived here for 50 years, told the host how she and her friends were now afraid to walk around. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, Canadians have listened to the wise counsel of its Chief Public Health Officer, Dr Theresa Tam, a paediatric infectious disease specialist who was born in Hong Kong, grew up in the UK and is now Canadian.

May 19, 2020 – Washington, DC, United States: President Donald Trump talking with the press after attending the Republican caucus lunch at the Hart Senate Office Building. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)

For the past two years, before the pandemic, Canada’s relationship with China had been rocky due to the imprisonment of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, a businessman. Both were detained on 10 December 2018, accused of espionage. The arrests were in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. It’s believed she was involved in a cover-up to sell equipment to Iran.

According to an Angus Reid poll, an overwhelming majority of Canadians believe that China has been duplicitous about its handling of the pandemic.

As nations, as people, we are always looking for scapegoats. It’s as old as history. Jews were once blamed for spreading plagues; now it’s the Chinese. But it’s vital to distinguish between the Chinese government and Chinese people, and between them and ethnic East Asians who live in the West. Sometimes there are conspiracies, e.g. Beijing’s (deniable) use of social media to spread lies about the coronavirus and its origins. It may be human to find scapegoats, but it’s not OK.

The pandemic has spawned its legacy of conspiracy theories. One story that fuelled anti-Chinese racism is how the virus was stolen from a lab in Canada by a Chinese spy team who then proceeded to weaponise it.

Conspiracy theories are on the rise, so much so that The Atlantic has launched a series called “Shadowland” exploring this genuine power of this “opposition to logic”, as editor Jeffery Goldberg wrote.

President Trump’s “Obamagate” conspiracy, whatever that is, follows a long line of fake news from flat-earthers, to the myths about the assassination of JFK, Bill Gates’s masterplan to take over the world, George Soros being the root of all evil, and the anti-vaxxers.

Studies have shown that half of the US population believes in at least one political or medical conspiracy theory. Canadians are not immune, either: one-third of Canadians believe in some Covid-19-related conspiracy theory.

According to an article in Psychology Today, “research has found that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure (the desire to find an explanation when explanations are lacking) and to be unique,” writes Joseph M Pierre, M.D., a Health Sciences Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the Acting Chief of Mental Health Community Care Systems at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. He continues, “they’re more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection or teleologic thinking (whereby events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives)”.

“Some research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are associated with lower levels of education and analytic thinking. The general psychological make-up of those who believe in conspiracies therefore appears to be shared across different conspiracy theories,” Dr Pierre concludes.

In times when people distrust the mainstream media, and fake news confirms their biases, Stephanie Craft, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois, and her team discovered that “individuals who give credence to conspiracy theories know comparatively little about how the news media work.”

Good media literacy helped people distinguish fact from fiction when people understood how the mainstream media gathered news. It’s often difficult to tell fact from fiction as a report in BuzzFeed News showed: 75 per cent of the time, adults couldn’t tell the difference between a true or false headline. It’s not the first time in history that’s been the case. During the Second World War many false headlines were printed. But these days there has been a cultural shift, particularly in the US, away from fact-based reporting. That’s not be helped by the fact that, nowadays when it comes to conspiracy theories, the Commander in Chief is also the promoter in chief.