As the world struggles to break the grip of COVID-19, psychologists and misinformation experts are studying why the pandemic spawned so many conspiracy theories, which have led people to eschew masks, social distancing and vaccines.
They're seeing links between beliefs in COVID-19 falsehoods and the reliance on social media as a source of news and information.
And they're concluding COVID-19 conspiracy theories persist by providing a false sense of empowerment. By offering hidden or secretive explanations, they give the believer a feeling of control in a situation that otherwise seems random or frightening.
The findings have implications not only for pandemic response but for the next "infodemic," a term used to describe the crisis of COVID-19 misinformation.
"We need to learn from what has happened, to make sure we can prevent it from happening the next time," said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, who served in George W. Bush's administration. "Masks become a symbol of your political party. People are saying vaccines are useless. The average person is confused: Who do I believe?"
About 1 in 4 Americans said they believe the pandemic was "definitely" or "probably" created intentionally, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. Other conspiracy theories focus on economic restrictions and vaccine safety. Increasingly, these baseless claims are prompting real-world problems.