There’s a theory that 5G is responsible for the spread of Covid-19 because it lowers our immunity. Another theory speculates that a vaccine is a covert way to inject us with trackable microchips. Then there’s QAnon, a far-right theory which claims that a ring of paedophiles is out to get Donald Trump.
From the US to Europe, conspiracy theories are hitting the headlines. They might sound far-fetched to you, but what if one of your colleagues turns out to be a conspiracy theorist? We spoke to Dr Daniel Jolley, an expert who understands the psychology and sociology behind conspiracy theories, and an employee who found herself in this situation, to find out more.
This year, Covid-19 and the US elections have fuelled conspiracy theories. In the US, nearly a third of the population believes that Covid-19 was created in a Chinese lab. In England, one in four people believe the same.
“One of the key ingredients of a conspiracy is a significant event,” said Dr Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist and senior lecturer at Northumbria University, who specialises in conspiracy theories. “Something mundane doesn’t require a conspiratorial answer. In psychology, this is what we refer to as proportionality bias. A big event must be explained by something equally as significant.”
Take QAnon, which resurfaced during the US elections. The far-right conspiracy theory alleges that an anonymous government official named “Q” is providing top-secret information online about a cannibalistic, Satan-worshipping ring of paedophiles who are plotting against Donald Trump. It’s a mouthful, and it’s been around since 2017. QAnon has spread across Europe and the UK, morphing to fit local narratives.
“One of my coworkers has recently been talking about [QAnon] at work. He’s showing people videos in the break room and ‘warning’ others about it. […] I can’t engage because then it just gets worse. But I feel like, left unchecked, it’ll spread like wildfire. It’s exhausting,” a Reddit user wrote, responding to our media request in the subreddit r/QAnonCasualties. It’s unclear how many support the theory, but the Reddit group of 40,000 members offer each other support and share concerns about friends, family or colleagues who have fallen for QAnon.
Despite many of us working from home, some employees are still going into the workplace. And sometimes, they find themselves rubbing shoulders with people who’ve picked up on conspiracy theories. However, workplace etiquette and hierarchies mean that it’s not always easy to debunk the beliefs of a boss or colleague.
Covid-19 conspiracies at work
Marina, who works for a tech company, has a colleague whose beliefs are difficult to ignore. “[At my office] we’re four people full-time, so I see him all the time,” she said. Marina is the only woman in a small team, and has felt the brunt of being in a male-dominated environment since she joined the company a year ago. When her colleague joined in December 2019, she was relieved.
“Everyone is kind of bland, but he’s, like, the fun person. I really enjoy having him around because he’s very charismatic. I actually find it entertaining to listen to his conspiracy theories,” she said.
At first, her colleague’s beliefs seemed harmless. “We were working late and he told me he had just bought a book about the moon and why it is where it is. A week later, I came into work and he told me all about how the whole Earth’s existence is based on the fact that the moon is 1mm to the left, or something like that,” she said with a smile.
When talk of Covid-19 began, his beliefs became more sinister and Marina soon stopped smiling. Her colleague alleged that a Dean Koontz novel, published in 1981, had predicted the outbreak. The author wrote of a virus, Wuhan-400, which was developed in a lab outside the Chinese city. Koontz fans took to Twitter to share their findings and the rumour spread. “He [my colleague] said that it was too much of a coincidence, that Covid-19 hasn’t come out of nowhere and that it had definitely been organised by the Chinese government,” said Marina.
The situation escalated, and her colleague started to call masks a form of “government control” that didn’t work because “the numbers in the UK went up as soon as people started wearing them”. He also told her that Trump contracted Covid-19 on purpose to “cough on Biden during the debate”, and that people didn’t really die from the virus since ‘the media always says “died after contracting Covid-19’ and not ‘died from Covid-19”.’
Who falls for conspiracy theories?
When it comes to determining who is more likely to believe in conspiracies, there is no clearly defined profile. “We’re all potentially susceptible to engage in conspiracy theorising,” said Dr Jolley. However, he explains that conspiracy theories can appeal more to those with the following character traits or backgrounds:
- Those who react emotionally rather than using their analytical mind.
- Narcissists. “If you can order the other group and say they’re doing bad things against you, that’s appealing to you [as a narcissist].”
- Those who like to feel special. “If you want to feel unique, you’re more likely to believe in conspiracies, because you have access to ‘special’ information.”
- If you’ve been ostracised in the past. “It’s a way to explain what’s happening in their lives, looking out for ways to fill that need, to try and feel wanted.”
Events of 2020 have provided fertile ground for conspiracies to spread.“It was predicted that there would be conspiratorial beliefs [about Covid-19] because they always arise in moments of crisis,” said Dr Jolley. “There are always peaks of conspiracy theories in an election because it’s a time of change. […] People are feeling really overwhelmed.”
Conspiratorial narratives offer a simple solution to a complex problem. For Marina’s colleague and others like him, the anxiety of living among an invisible enemy like a virus is so overwhelming that it’s easier to find something or someone to blame.
Should I confront my colleague about his theories?
Marina finally challenged her colleague when he refused to wear a mask in the office. After he told her that masks didn’t work, she explained to him that he was being unscientific, and that she knew people who had died of the virus. “He was, like, ‘How old were they?’ And I told him they were in their 70s. He said they were going to die anyway.”
Marina eventually gave up. “I feel a bit awkward because I work in a very bro-y office where I have no energy to confront people. It’s almost like a performative thing with this guy. […] I almost envy him believing in stuff so much, being so entranced by gobbledygook,” she said.
Whether an employee feels comfortable calling someone out on their beliefs, like Marina did, is completely subjective. If that comfort exists, then Dr Jolley suggests acting as a trusted messenger. Don’t just go in and debunk someone’s theory, he suggests. “It could be interesting to learn more compassionately why that person has got to where they are.”
There are overlaps with other controversial subjects, according to Dr Jolley. “We don’t necessarily ask our colleagues about their political beliefs or their views on gender equality. I’ve never done that. But if it comes up and they’re being sexist, it’s about calling them out on that, I suppose,” he said.
If a colleague’s beliefs are creating a toxic environment, in the same way as discriminatory, sexist or racist behaviour, it is wise to follow the same protocol. Try to discuss the matter with the person in question, and if this doesn’t work, take it to HR.
Beliefs are integral to our identities, which means your colleague won’t change their opinions overnight. “That person needs the time and space to think through their beliefs, because it’s potentially going to be a change of identity,” said Dr Jolley. Not an easy task, at a time when many people are experiencing an increase in existential fears.
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