The COVID-19 pandemic and the search for structure: Social media and conspiracy theories

Benjamin J. Dow, Amber L. Johnson, Cynthia S. Wang*, Jennifer Whitson, Tanya Menon

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The study outlines a model for how the COVID-19 pandemic has uniquely exacerbated the propagation of conspiracy beliefs and subsequent harmful behaviors. The pandemic has led to widespread disruption of cognitive and social structures. As people face these disruptions they turn online seeking alternative cognitive and social structures. Once there, social media radicalizes beliefs, increasing contagion (rapid spread) and stickiness (resistance to change) of conspiracy theories. As conspiracy theories are reinforced in online communities, social norms develop, translating conspiracy beliefs into real-world action. These real-world exchanges are then posted back on social media, where they are further reinforced and amplified, and the cycle continues. In the broader population, this process draws attention to conspiracy theories and those who confidently espouse them. This attention can drive perceptions that conspiracy beliefs are less fringe and more popular, potentially normalizing such beliefs for the mainstream. We conclude by considering interventions and future research to address this seemingly intractable problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12636
JournalSocial and Personality Psychology Compass
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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