COVID-19 has created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we have a global pandemic, a crashing economy, social isolation, and restrictive government policies: All of these can cause feelings of extreme anxiety, powerlessness, and stress, which in turn encourage conspiracy beliefs. For more than a month, an urban legend that the pandemic was predicted in an early-’80s Dean Koontz thriller has been circulating on social media. Meanwhile, QAnon believers are circulating the “mole children” theory, which holds that the virus is a ploy to arrest members of the satanic “deep state” (Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton) and to release their hostages (sex-slave children) from underneath Central Park. (Tom Hanks’s appearance on Saturday Night Live should have quelled speculation that he had been arrested for child molestation, but—in typical conspiratorial fashion—believers simply explained the irregularity away, claiming that Hanks’s monologue was a deepfake.)
But if the coronavirus pandemic is fertile ground for conspiracism, it’s also an opportunity—a rare chance for social scientists to examine just how many Americans will adopt conspiracy theories given the right set of circumstances. While laboratory experiments and public-opinion surveys are useful for understanding the basic structure of conspiracy beliefs, they can’t simulate real-world catastrophes of the kind that make conspiracy theories appealing to some people. It’s wise to step back and use these unique circumstances to consider what conspiracy theories can tell us about the media, the government, and ourselves. It turns out they can tell us a lot.