Today
Tue 26 October 2021

Psychiatrist Benjamin Janaway wanted to understand why people have turned to COVID conspiracy theories. This is what he found

In September 2021, almost two years into the deadliest pandemic of recent memory, we still find ourselves battling on two fronts. The first is COVID-19 and its variants, and the second is a mounting level of distrust and cynicism about treatments and policies designed to protect us. 

Many of us find it difficult to understand how seemingly necessary and safe policies present an apparent assault on the health and freedom of others. So earlier this week I spent time at a demonstration talking with activists who were protesting against teenage vaccination, and this is what I learned.  

It was a mixed group, full of people with different experiences and lifestyles, who discussed varied sources of information. They had different heroes and stories. They held signs which ranged from reported death figures associated with vaccines to allusions of media complicity – and a rather hyperbolic link between the two. And they wanted to talk.

The first issue was with the data. People have an implicit bias to pick data that supports their viewpoint. Often, however, the data can be flawed, as can its application. Data can only be used when analysed in context, and this is often overlooked. The numbers of problems reported on the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) in the United States and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the UK seem scary – but they lack context or explanation.

The VAER data, for example, is not analysed to adjust for confounding factors or even the truth of the reports. When we look at this data, it must be subject to further scientific analysis in the context of a wider range of studies to understand what it means and how it could be measured. Unfortunately, the protestors knew very little of this process, and many had no exposure to the wider data. They were working with half the story. The best data was often entirely unknown.

The same occurred in their understanding of other risks associated with vaccines (such as myocarditis), risk of death between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, and the nuances expressed by relevant experts. This seemed to be because their range of sources was very much curtailed by their online and real-life groups, with access restricted by viral spread of the most opinionated or concerning stories.

Few knew how COVID-19 works, spreads, and kills. Many also didn’t know how the vaccine works or the reduction in death it has granted. Some of the protestors repeated year-old myths about the fallacy of masks, did not know the difference between aerosol and droplet contamination, or indeed how COVID-19 itself can cause clots. Upon this being explained, they were receptive but found it hard to swallow. 

Overall, they lacked access to both sides of the story, as well as education on the means to understand it. They held beliefs, as we all do, based on the emotional connection with stories and data. They had no cause to question the validity of their information, and indeed questioning it would have destabilised their sense of morality.


Common Morality

When I explained the science and medicine further, many defaulted to sporadic but unfortunately common conspiracy theories. Some referenced Andrew Wakefield and MMR, and other shady online polemicists. They used the comments of these discredited ‘experts’ to bind their loosely connected fears with a skewed appreciation of data. 

For example, one man told me that COVID-19 was a shield to “kill the elderly” and “shut down our freedoms”. He was adamant. Another was convinced that the vaccine “created more virus” through some manipulation of DNA, but relented to provide a scientific explanation. He also brought up how “the Great Barrington Declaration” meant that doctors were opposed to lockdowns.

When presented with events that are radical – that shift the normal patterns of our lives – we spot patterns that don’t exist and fill in the gaps. For one man, the loss of freedom incurred over the last two years must have been planned for some time, with COVID-19 used as a cover. He backed this up deploying his choice experts and used any discrediting facts as further proof of a conspiracy.  

What struck me the most about these protestors was the common nature of our shared concerns. We all wanted the same: to protect ourselves and each other. We had all done research, and we were all impassioned to make a change. We all felt ignored by higher powers, vulnerable to abuse.

I am lucky to have received training; not all are afforded the same opportunity. I wish they were. 

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These were all good people, not the manufactured enemy that online forums would suggest. They were polite, respectful, discursive, and receptive. They were eager to learn, but not quite able to come to a different view, or at least admit this in the company of their peers. Their fear of losing their identity in the group, as well as an unwillingness to dismantle their moral framework, kept them from seeing an alternative viewpoint. I can understand this, and I would face the same if I were to oppose prevailing medical opinion. 

The major issue here is a vulnerability to poor information, abuse by charlatans who have politicised science for their own benefit, and a lack of training in the processes to utilise data, question assertions, and spot problems. 

We have seen this before. People who feel left behind, victims of the opaque diktat of higher powers, their access to information censored, vulnerable to spurious rumours and misinformation. This is how fascism begins, and the process occurs here too. Those who live in fear are the most easily misled.

These people said that they felt as though they were protecting their children. And although our views of vaccines differ, we agreed on many things, primarily that people must be listened to, their concerns heard and explanations provided. We also agreed on the need for education and the moral obligation to protect loved ones. 

We parted ways amicably. Resolving wars requires listening, working together, and treating each other with respect as fellow humans with kind hearts. So instead of fighting, let’s talk.  

Dr Benjamin Janaway is a Psychiatry Registrar in east London

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