The novel coronavirus threatens the health of Canadians, but to some people the pandemic stokes fears of a government plot to subvert freedoms, say experts who study conspiracy theories.
Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, economic shocks and the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak are events that fuel conspiracy theories, says Edwin Hodge, a sociologist at the University of Victoria who studies far-right extremism.
“Believing that it just happened by accident doesn’t work,” said Hodge. “One of the things I found that a lot of conspiracy theories do is they provide a sense of order to a chaotic universe.”
He said this holds true across political and social spectrums.
Governments closing public and private places, urging physical distancing and requiring travellers to self-isolate for 14 days to slow the spread of COVID-19 would be viewed as state control tactics by those who believe in conspiracy theories, Hodge said.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau explained those measures to help fight the pandemic, those people heard a different message, he said.
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“What they really hear him say is your constitutional rights don’t matter anymore,” said Hodge. “Now we’re going to separate and isolate you and that’s how we’re going to get you.”
David Black, a communications theorist at Victoria’s Royal Roads University, said while the world struggles with an epidemiological crisis, a battle for the truth is raging in a post-truth age where facts and information are often blurred.
“Post-truth is not lying,” he said. “Post-truth is where we stopped caring. We became indifferent to facts, to evidence, logical consistency.
“Just when we need facts, evidence, logical consistency and fidelity to truth as we try to share information about a disease that could harm or kill many people, we find ourselves culturally unprepared to receive the information we need.”
Black said conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus can trigger fears, prejudices and irrational actions, but evidence and truth are powerful anti-conspiracy forces.