The multi-domain quality of the conspiracy theory also helps to explain its cyclical and adaptable nature: Once a narrative has established a pattern of creating such large leaps, the creation of further or newer leaps to even more disparate domains is considerably eased.
A deeper question is why these disease narratives circulate at all. One argument, advanced in the book Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories, is that “conspiracy theories are often shared among people who lack—or feel that they lack—social power.” In an age of wealth inequality and partisan politics, the majority of Americans potentially fall into this category.
Another, more general, answer is that the amount of time between the start of an epidemic and the point at which science can provide clear explanations creates an information vacuum for a concerned public that demands immediate response. These vacuums are easily filled both by the individual turning to familiar narratives from previous epidemics, and by anti-vaccination and conspiracy-theory groups actively working to promote their own narratives.
If spreading rumors is easy, combatting them is hard. As folklorists such as Bill Ellis have proposed, “some legends may not die so much as they dive,” remaining latent for long periods of time until a new situation arises that fits the scope and nature of the narrative. It is equally the case, as the sociologist John Gagnon has argued, that the difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory is that a scientific theory has holes in it.
Just as problematic, whether you want to call the current era “postmodern” or “post-truth”: Public trust in both government and fellow citizens is at or near historic lows. In the face of such opposition, public figures may not be capable of turning the tide. A recent Pew Research Center poll of U.S. adults found that 39 percent “definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine,” and that 21 percent “do not intend to get vaccinated and are ‘pretty certain’ more information will not change their mind.” How many of these respondents were reacting to any given narrative—whether false claim, conspiracy theory, or otherwise—is unclear, but the narratives are certainly massaging these responses.
That doesn’t mean community leaders shouldn’t try to debunk conspiracy theories and chip away at resistance. Pastors, prominent business owners, local sports figures, and so on should work in conjunction with local doctors to provide solid information. Such efforts should be frequent and, for best results, done in person, as when Anthony Fauci personally Zoomed into a Boston-area church to talk directly to parishioners.
Conspiracy theories will always be among us, but the pandemic doesn’t have to be.