COVID-19 conspiracy theories: Psychological distress can lead to radicalization

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COVID-19 conspiracy theories: psychological distress can lead to radicalization
WATCH: Researchers at McGill University are looking at COVID-19 conspiracy theories and their links to violence. As Global's Raquel Fletcher explains, researchers have observed that social isolation during the pandemic is leading to an increase in radicalization and violence. – Mar 2, 2021

As the coronavirus pandemic approaches the one-year mark, concern for wider effects relating to misinformation about the virus is growing.

Conspiracy theories have been associated with epidemics and pandemics since the middle ages.

“It’s very difficult to fight a virus, or a bacteria, it’s an invisible enemy,” said Dr. Cécile Rousseau, a researcher and clinical psychiatrist.

She explained that most of these theories blame a scapegoat.

“They can be racialized people, they can be immigrants, they can be special religious groups,” she said.

READ MORE: No Hoax: Fighting COVID-19 has meant tackling conspiracy theories, even within families

“It can be an identified individual, like Bill Gates,” she added.

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Rousseau is part of a team of researchers at McGill University who looked at COVID-19 conspiracy theories and their link with violence. According to their findings, social isolation is leading to an increase in violent radicalization among people at risk.

Rousseau said the fear of the unknown has lead to an increase in conspiracy theories, including anti-mask and anti-vaccine “to recuperate a sense of ownership and power.”

READ MORE: CSIS warns about conspiracy theories linking COVID-19 to 5G technology

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Margaux Bennardi is with the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, a non-profit organization that provides resources for friends and family members of radicalized individuals. She said there are many factors that could lead to someone buying into a conspiracy theory: “Losing your job, not knowing what to do with your days.”

“Being alone, isolated, for some individuals, [has] had a really negative impact,” she said. “Conspiracy theories are a defense mechanism,” she added.

In the worst cases, some people have turned to violence. The attacks on the United States Capitol is one example.

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Capitol riot: FBI director says attack involved militia extremists, white supremacists

Rousseau said young men between 15 and 35 years old who spend most of their time on the internet are most at risk of becoming radicalized.

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“And what they will find online is war is coming, you should defend yourself,” said Rousseau.

“The main threat in Canada comes from isolated individuals who are in despair, who are distressed, who are enraged, and who may want to die while taking other people’s lives,” she said.

However, she says not all people who believe in conspiracy theories will become violent.

“In Quebec, you have a group of people who adhere to anti-mask theories who are women, middle-aged women, who will not endorse violence,” Rousseau said.

Click to play video: 'How online conspiracies can spark offline violence'
How online conspiracies can spark offline violence

All the same, experts warn a radicalized family member can have a heartbreaking impact on loved ones.

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“I have someone who said to me, ‘I think my son is dead, like it’s not him anymore. And right now, I’m grieving for him,'” Bennardi said.

READ MORE: New social media campaign targets COVID-19 misinformation with science

Rousseau said these individuals have often been bullied or are dealing with some sort of past or present trauma and that most can be treated with long-term psychological or psychiatric help that can address the underlying feelings of frustration and anger.

“Confrontation or humiliation doesn’t work,” she said.

She said governments need to make access to this kind of help a priority.

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