HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: The crisis of conspiracy in the time of coronavirus


One thing leads to another, until it leads to nowhere – this is the essence of the conspiracy theory. It always has been. The only difference now is that we live in a time of information overload where it’s becoming nearly impossible to discern between things that are real and fake, and so it takes a blind believer a lot longer to reach the inevitable truth of a meaningless nothing.

False information spreads faster now than ever before. Conspiracy theories don’t just live in the dark corners of the world now, they’re omnipresent. The digitisation of information has made it really, really easy for like-minded people to find like-minded echo chambers and those echo chambers are where facts go to die.

I started thinking about the psychology and history of the conspiracy theory this week when I realised that my newsfeed had been inundated with them regarding COVID-19. The mere fact that conspiracy theories exist around a virus is unsurprising. If history has taught us anything, it’s that viruses (that start in Asia) are hotbeds for rumours that can neatly divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. How does that old adage go? Small things amuse small minds.

But I really wanted to understand the brain’s conspiracy bias because it does exist. What is it about a string of false statements, whether they’re about a virus, a government or the media, that makes us reach for our ancient instincts of separation and is it possible that the conspiracy theory is more harmful now than ever?

Suspicion is the heart of any conspiracy theory. Suspicion is also the thing that has helped humanity survive for so many years. A healthy dose of it is needed to merely exist. Our ancestors knew this and we know this. It’s the elixir that keeps us from blindly jumping off cliffs because someone told us to, and it’s what makes us investigate, interrogate and critique motive.

Suspicion is a placeholder, or at least it used to be. Where there was suspicion, there was a waiting room where facts could reveal themselves and either eradicate the suspicion or affirm it. But in this age of viral information, no such room exists. Before we have even taken our seats, the theory has already organised itself, propagated and enjoyed remarkable success in fuelling conflict, ignorance and prejudice.

Conspiracy theories don’t always have to involve aliens and Area 51, the Lochness monster in Scotland, the existence of Bigfoot and long drawn-out lectures on why the moon landing was faked. Conspiracy theories can be simpler, yet more harmful.

On any given day on Twitter you can see new ones sprout. In South Africa, they’re particularly rife at the moment. If you’re confused about my references, let me direct you to the whole EFF “Jamnandas” lore, or the banning of the press at events and the whole “media cabal” narrative.

In fact, when conspiracy theories don’t involve monsters or extra-terrestrials, they become more dangerous because the narrative of the ancient “us” and “them” order of the world changes from humans vs. creature, to us vs. us.

People have always made assumptions about how different groups are plotting to deceive or harm them – but the existing and perpetuating appeal of the conspiracy theory is tribal. Tribalism is a simplified way of explaining things, like the age-old and necessary fight between hardworking citizens and a corrupt, self-serving and privileged elite.

But while this argument lies on the moral end of the spectrum, other tribal theories can fall into the more destructive side. Like say, for example, when the white far right in South Africa start to demonise black people as hostile groups. It’s a tale as old as time. Is it true? No. Five minutes in the waiting room of suspicion will prove that to you if you would bother to seek the facts, but we don’t. Why? Why are communities so eager to believe conspiracies?

Psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen says “people who feel powerless are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories” because they believe these theories will help rectify their situations, regardless of how fictional those theories are.

In another paper titled Conspiracy Theories are for Losers, authors Joseph Uscinski and Jospeh Parent maintain groups who see themselves in a state of powerlessness are keen to adapt and engage with the strategic logic of conspiracy theories because it helps them “sharpen internal cohesion and focus attention on dangers”.

In simple terms, this can be applied to almost any viral rumour you see on your Twitter timeline. For example: “They don’t write nice things about us, this is the conspiracy, let’s all believe it because it brings us together with a false sense of power and we can all focus on them.” This kind of single-mindedness offers a kind of symbolic control from an institution people feel has alienated them.

Dr Rob Brotherton is the author of a book called Suspicious Minds. In his work he explores the idea of “intentionality bias”, the belief that everything happens for a reason. We are most likely to succumb to “intentionality bias” when we are children because as we grow up, we realise that things also sometimes happen by accident or by coincidence or through the mere evolution of ideas, ideologies and behaviours - in life, in politics, in physiology and in society as a whole.

Not everything happens by design, but intent-seekers who are adamant on operating according to their cognitive biases play a massive role in the endorsement of inferring intentional explanations for actions. Meaning they are out to prove that an event has taken place because it is a product of exclusive and intentional agency. Why would people succour this? Well, because their sense of understanding and control is threatened. But to say that only theorists and the general rumour mill are the ones who feel powerless is a lie.

We live in a world that is alarmingly unstable. I don’t trust the institutions meant to represent me to do so in a way that is trustworthy when they themselves are in a crisis and fail to reckon with their own fractured realities. It calls into question legitimacy. And when legitimacy is questioned, it speaks to suspicion. And when we suspect that institutions are failing in their duties to represent us equally and mis-framing our realities, then it’s easy to lean into things like intentionality bias where we wrestle with a world of influencers and bloggers and writers and students who prosper under conditions where they carry no baggage for the theories they peddle because in contrast to the institutions, these people appear to be more honest, more direct and more unmediated.

If we’re going to tackle the crisis of conspiracy, the first thing all institutions, whether they’re medical, media or political, need to do is tackle the crisis of our own legitimacy as well.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.