Hundreds of people march along Yale Road near Hodgins Avenue during the Fraser Valley Freedom Rally on Saturday, April 3, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Hundreds of people march along Yale Road near Hodgins Avenue during the Fraser Valley Freedom Rally on Saturday, April 3, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

OPINION: Have COVIDiots fallen prey to conspiracy theories or are they just selfish?

Conspiracy theories often help people explain tumultuous events when the truth is too hard to accept

A group of anti-science conspiracy theorists marched through the streets of downtown Chilliwack on Saturday carrying signs, sharing misinformation and shouting nonsense.

Some call them COVIDiots. They certainly behaved like petulant children.

The Vancouver version on the weekend was the Stand Up For Small Businesses Vancouver March. The Facebook page with a handful of Chilliwack members is called the Fraser Valley Freedom Rally. And Saturday’s travelling circus was called the “Fraser Valley Community Festival.”

This was all on display as health workers on the front lines battle a third wave of this global pandemic. COVID-19 variants are spreading quickly raising concerns among medical experts. And the race is on to get people vaccinated.

So what prompts otherwise law-abiding, possibly even otherwise intelligent people to behave so selfishly, to spread such blatant misinformation? I wrote about this one year ago in a column on the ‘infodemic’ we were fighting amid this pandemic.

READ MORE: COLUMN: Fighting an ‘infodemic’ amid a pandemic

Clearly there are political ideologues among those who share pandemic conspiracy theories, but surely also many people believe what they are saying, what they are reading, what they are sharing.

As Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham put it in her April 6 column: “Perhaps these people haven’t had friends or family affected by this pandemic. They’re lucky. But they’re delusional thinking that they’re not at risk and also incredibly selfish to think that they aren’t a risk to others.”

Psychologists and experts on misinformation research why this pandemic in particular has led to so many to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines. Social media is nothing new, nor is the spread of misinformation on Twitter and Facebook, but as it grows as a source of information, people are not checking the sources of what they are sharing and believing.

READ MORE: COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing false sense of empowerment: experts

Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky has studied climate change denialism, the anti-science rhetoric still seen in some circles despite the overwhelming evidence that it’s happening and that humans are responsible.

A Scientific American article from fall 2020 looked into the issue of what leads to belief in conspiracy theories, and it can be complicated. One reason, according to new research, is that underlying emotions like anxiety can lead to belief in conspiracies. Anxiety is rampant in our current pandemic situation, and coupled with disenfranchisement felt by many in North America, the stage is set.

When people feel like they do not have control, blaming it on a conspiracy is a satisfying scapegoat.

“People can assume that if these bad guys weren’t there, then everything would be fine,” Lewandowsky says. “Whereas if you don’t believe in a conspiracy theory, then you just have to say terrible things happen randomly.”

In another article in same that Scientific American edition entitled “Truth vs. Lies”, three hurdles to proper critical thinking are addressed: shortcuts, confirmation bias, and social goals.

With information overload, complexity is frustrating so often people use a short cut and believe what is simple or we find an “expert” and parrot simplistic groupthink.

Confirmation bias is a serious issue as humans process information, the article explains, as we often act “less like an impartial judge and more like a lawyer working for the mob.”

“We show a natural tendency to pay attention to some findings over others and to reinterpret mixed evidence to fit with pre-existing beliefs.”

But even if we can get past those two, the human desire to fit in to a certain group, attain a certain status, whether it is as a rebel or a proud anti-establishment martyr, can derail logical thought and scientific reality.

“The most popular conspiracy theories often help people explain complicated, tumultuous events, when the truth may be too troubling to accept,” according to Helen Lee Bouygues, founder and president of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation, a critical thinking research group.

Whether those marching through town Saturday with the anti-science message were being selfish or had fallen prey to the above critical thinking hurdles is hard to say.

What is most important to note is that the COVIDiots among us are but a tiny fraction of the population.

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