Conspiracies during the COVID-19 pandemic directly increased pre-existing polarization, but it also contributed directly to the polarization of the virus – what should have stayed a public health issue. Rhetoric, media, and the paranoia within conspiracies, all have a foothold in how the pandemic is discussed.
When the COVID-19 pandemic reached the United States, there was widespread discourse on how to address the matter effectively: fear, anxiety, and uncertainty were all pushed to the forefront… but so were conspiracy theories and as a result, core problems emerged: the pre-existing polarization in the United States worsened during the pandemic and it has turned COVID-19, a global public health issue, into a polarized political fight that was further escalated by misinformation and conservative rhetoric.
According to a Pew Research study in 2019, it was discovered that “nearly two-thirds (64%) say that low trust in the federal government makes it harder to solve many of the country’s problems” and “ 70% of Americans believe that citizens’ low trust in each other makes it harder to solve problems.“ This data is pre-pandemic so it reveals how poor the level of trust was. If people already don’t have the most faith in the government or those around them to handle the problems effectively, then a global health crisis occurring will not instill much faith. This created more doubt in how the pandemic should be handled and led to an environment that fostered misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Further, when the pandemic first started, news outlets were unprepared to handle discussion on the pandemic as the majority of reporters, editors, and writers had limited to no public health expertise. This created an urgency to understand as much as possible and then report it without really understanding the complexities that play into the science. Consequently, this exacerbates the likelihood of misinformation spreading if those reporting the news don’t fully understand what they are discussing. To add even more complexity to this matter, a study by Oscar Barrera and other researchers discovered that “providing the correct statistical evidence is not sufficient to counter the effect that populist politicians have on voters.” So, even the facts are not enough to counter the misinformation, allowing for partisans to continue to support their leader.
Alt-right groups, Republican leaders and political elites, all existed before COVID, but their paranoid and misinformed rhetoric increased greatly during the pandemic and has directly made an impact on the public. Widespread conspiracy theories range anywhere from accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci (the principal infectious disease expert) of funding the creation of coronavirus in a Wuhan lab to the pandemic being a hoax orchestrated by the inner global elites working to take everyone’s rights away to the media purposely inflating the number of covid-related deaths. To understand why conspiracies are so powerful requires understanding that persecution, a concept central to paranoia, is a core element in what embodies theories of conspiracy. American historian, Richard Hofstadter, argues that the paranoia and persecution felt is particularly “ directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.” (Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics). As a consequence of this, the leader and their followers are convinced that they are in the moral right for their behavior and beliefs. The more one is able to convince a person that misinformation and conspiracy is reality, the more robust politicians, populists, and extremists become in maintaining their power.
Polarization continues to worsen and the pandemic becoming polarized demonstrates just how deep the partisan split is. It will be difficult to repair this relationship especially as both sides view the other as wrong, and essentially a threat to democracy. The foothold conspiracies and misinformation have in American politics must be a more pressing concern given the power paranoia holds.