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'I miss them a lot' Family torn in half by conspiracy theories

"In for a penny, in for a pound. Once you start believing those things, it just becomes easier to justify more and more extreme levels."

Toxic Theories

This is the first of two parts examining the impact of conspiracy theories on families as well as the psychological and sociological factors behind them.

Listen to the audio version of this story here:

When Cara-Rae's sister-in-law Ashley began believing COVID-19 conspiracy theories, the close bond between the two began to fray and eventually the family tore apart.

Ashley owns a gym in a Calgary suburb. Since the pandemic started, Cara-Rae said her sister-in-law became increasingly frustrated with health restrictions and began to believe more and more unfounded theories about the pandemic. 

Ashley's name has been changed to protect her identity. The Gazette is withholding Cara-Rae's last name for the same reason.

The impact on the small family has been huge, Cara-Rae said. Ashley is her husband's only sibling, and became distant from the family as her beliefs shifted. Ashley recently started to follow the anti-masking movement and believes putting masks on children contributes to child abduction and trafficking.

"It's hurtful for her parents, of course, as well. They're just devastated. We don't have a very big family. It pretty much feels like we've had to cut off a limb," Cara-Rae said.

Cara-Rae and her husband live with his parents, and both her husband and father-in-law suffer from a heart condition. Testing positive for COVID-19 would put them at high risk of dying from the virus, so they must take public health measures very seriously.

While the two households live hours away from each other, they cannot risk seeing Ashley and her family, even when restrictions are loosened. Visiting them would mean putting the vulnerable members of their family at risk.

Ashley is married with children, and Cara-Rae said they deeply miss their young niece and nephew, who don't understand why they can't see their family.

Cara-Rae said Ashley always believed in some of the tamer conspiracy theories, but COVID-19 and the circumstances around it escalated her views quickly.

"I think it just kind of escalated from there when she started to find more extreme videos and theories. In for a penny, in for a pound. Once you start believing those things, it just becomes easier to justify more and more extreme levels," Cara-Rae said.

"Once you can believe in one, all of them start to feel a little less ridiculous, right? A little more reliable."

When COVID-19 hit, Ashley's gym business had to close and she took a huge financial hit. Ashley's husband also lost his job and the two have been facing a lot of financial stress.

Once Ashley couldn't work, Cara-Rae said she spent more time on the internet, which she believes radicalized her.

"I think she was looking for something to blame, looking for a place to put that anger and that frustration, and she found this online community and it serves that need for her."

Cara-Rae said she continued to try to talk to her sister-in-law, but communication has all but halted because of how difficult it is to respond to theories Ashley believes. 

"I just don't even know how to respond anymore to some of this stuff, because it's just gotten to a level of ridiculousness," Cara-Rae said.

Who believes in conspiracy theories, and why?

Conspiracy theories cover a wide gamut of topics. In general, they're rooted in a belief that some covert but influential organization (say, a government or a powerful corporation) is responsible for a circumstance or event. These theories often challenge the official story and ascribe ulterior motives to the organizations involved.

Mark Pickup, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University, is researching COVID-19 conspiracy theories. He said uncertainty and anxiety are two relevant factors in why people may turn to these theories.

While conspiracy theories have been around for a long time in one form or another, Pickup said there are many circulating at this particular time in history. The rise in anxiety during the pandemic, populists stoking conspiracy theories, and our social media environment can spread these theories like wildfire.

The pandemic has caused feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, leading people to seek solutions, answers and explanations to what's happening in the world around them, he said.

People who don't trust traditional authorities, like the government or public health bodies, start looking elsewhere for answers. 

There is also a lot of misinformation circulating online, Pickup said. Research has shown misinformation can spread quicker than the truth.

A recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found fake news travels farther, faster, deeper and broader than the truth in all categories of information due to people retweeting and sharing the misinformation – not because of bots. False news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories, the study found. True stories can take about six times as long to reach 1,500 people compared to false news.

When it comes to COVID-19 conspiracy theories, one in four Canadians believe there is at least some truth to the claim that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China – based on the results of a survey of 2,271 adults across Canada between April 24 and 28 last year.

Pickup, who was part of the team researching these COVID-19 conspiracy theories in Canada, said this theory was given legitimacy in the public because there were people in authority, like former U.S. president Donald Trump, who suggested this theory could be a possibility, instead of immediately discrediting it.

Nearly one in five Canadians believe the Chinese government engineered the virus in a lab, and almost one in ten believe the pandemic is a way for billionaire Bill Gates to microchip people.

Populists, like Trump, attack institutions where people traditionally get their answers, Pickup said. As a result, people to latch onto alternative explanations, like conspiracy theories.

"You end up with people being highly susceptible to those conspiracy theories."

At this point in time, Pickup said more conspiracy theories in the world are coming from right-wing populist governments. In Canada, conservative politicians haven't embraced conspiracy theories openly as they have in the United States, where Trump spread theories about voter fraud.

However, Canadians are exposed to similar reading materials through the internet and social media, so they are just as susceptible to coming across that information.

In Canada, Pickup said people who are supporters of parties like the People's Party of Canada are more likely to support conspiracy theories than other party affiliations, due to right-wing populist leaders and candidates condoning conspiracy theories.

According to Pickup's research, with the exception of a theory linking the pharmaceutical industry with COVID-19, it is the Conservative Party of Canada supporters who are the most likely to endorse these conspiracy theories Almost half (42 per cent) of Conservative Party voters believed that the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab, compared to 13 per cent of Liberal voters and 10 per cent of NDP voters. Thirty-four per cent of Conservatives believed the Chinese government developed the coronavirus in a lab and another 18 per cent believed Bill Gates is using the coronavirus to push a vaccine with a microchip capable of tracking people, while five per cent of NDP voters and four per cent of Liberals believed the Bill Gates conspiracy.

Pickup said people turn to others in their group, and look to them for answers. If others in your group believe in a conspiracy theory, then you are more likely to become convinced of one.

Reflective thinking

Although conspiracy theories are currently believed by more people who follow right-wing populists, Pickup said research hasn't found all of the answers on who is universally more likely to believe in them.

But one psychological factor can be useful in determining who is more at risk.

People who do more reflective thinking – slowing down and rationalizing through a situation rather than just responding intuitively – are less susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories, Pickup said.

People who use social media to get their news are more likely to believe in conspiracies if they score low in reflective thinking. If you score high in reflective thinking but still use social media to get your news, you are not as likely to believe in conspiracies.

This research shows individual psychological factors are more important markers of who will believe in conspiracy theories rather than other factors, like demographics, Pickup said.

People who are more highly educated are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but he said those underlying psychological factors are still more important than someone's education level.

"Certainly there are plenty of people with university education who buy into conspiracy theories, so it more has to do with psychological factors," Pickup said.

Once someone starts to believe in a conspiracy theory, that kind of thinking starts to snowball, Pickup said.

"There's general susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and then there are specific conspiracies that might appeal to specific people." 

For people who score lower in reflective thinking, being exposed to conspiracies online that match their worldview make them more likely to believe in them.

Anyone who gets their news through social media will have a higher exposure to conspiracies, and if they are more psychologically vulnerable to them, they are more likely to believe.

The academic said the best way to combat this is to think about what you are reading on the internet, rather than internalizing the message you are reading immediately. Often, people will only read the headlines of news stories, and the headlines don't reflect the full story.

"Stories in general, but particularly headlines that instill fear or anger are going to be more likely to be shared than ones that instill other emotions like joy," Pickup said. That means conspiratorial stories are more likely to be shared and seen on the internet than true stories.

Once someone starts believing in conspiracies, it is extremely difficult to pull them out of their beliefs, as anyone who speaks out against the conspiracy is seen as brainwashed or part of the conspiracy.

"The information that's telling me I'm wrong is part of the conspiracy, and so anyone who says you're wrong, you see them as part of the conspiracy. This is why conspiracy theories are so hard and it's so difficult to get people to stop believing in them," Pickup said.

The conspiracies around COVID-19 are not harmless and have serious public health consequences, he added.

"A lot of them affect people's behaviours, and that affects the spread of COVID-19," Pickup said. If many people don't wear masks or social distance because they believe in a conspiracy, they will increase the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, he added.

Jennifer Henderson

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette and has been with Great West Media since 2015
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