Men on Hinge are writing about COVID-19 being a depopulation tool in their bios, old flings I’ve added on Facebook are posting from anti-mask demonstrations and guys I’ve hooked up with pre-lockdown are now forwarding me unsolicited videos that claim to know the “truth” about the vaccine. As much as I would like to believe it is my terrible taste in men, I’ve begun to notice a gender-based trend when it comes to conspiracy theories – especially worrying when you consider that men in the UK are twice as likely to die from COVID than women.
A lot of the more prominent COVID conspiracy theorists in the public eye appear to be men, too. Just two months ago, Right Said Fred – the one-hit duo who famously sang “I’m too sexy for my shirt” – declared their anti-lockdown, anti-mask stance on Sky News. A bodybuilder named Andreas Michli even became something of a martyr for the anti-lockdown movement after he was fined over £77,000 for refusing to close his gym during lockdown. He was subsequently arrested at an anti-lockdown protest, where he insisted that he would “keep doing this until we're free". At his trial (which he lost) for keeping the gym open, fans gathered outside and cheered.
Closer to home, Chakabars, a well-known Instagram influencer, is another ardent peddler of misinformation. He is a Pan-Africanist (read: hotep) and lover of the African continent, yet encourages his followers to travel unvaccinated and has also suggested that Black people might recover from COVID quicker because of our skin colour. His particular kind of COVID myth-sharing is particularly sinister, as it is Black people – who are suffering worst from COVID-19 – that make up the majority of his one million followers.
The fact that so many conspiracy theorists appear to be men isn't flat-out conjecture. One recent US study revealed that men are more likely believe in COVID conspiracies than women (including false claims such as “5G cell towers are causing the virus” and “scientists are trying to make Donald Trump look bad by exaggerating the seriousness of the pandemic”). Another study, over in Australia, found that men between the ages of 18 and 25 are more likely to believe COVID myths and misinformation than any other group, like the inaccurate claim that hot temperatures or UV light are able to kill the virus.
One study, published in the academic journal Politics & Gender, revealed that people who hold sexist attitudes that “reaffirm men's position in social hierarchies” are “less likely to be worried about the coronavirus, less likely to engage in behaviors to protect themselves and others, less likely to support state and local government policies that aim to stem the spread of the disease.” In other words, COVID-19 measures might be viewed by some as a threat to masculinity (hence Nanci Pelosi’s famous line: “Real men wear masks”).
Dr Erin Cassese, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, co-authored the US study. She thinks that the COVID conspiracy gender divide “stems from feelings of 'learned helplessness”, as her studies have also shown that men tend to score higher for “learned helplessness” – the belief that your life and actions are beyond your control. When consumed by these feelings, it can often lead to conspiratorial thinking or the idea that something, or someone else, could be running things behind the scenes.
“There’s evidence that conspiracy theories can work like a coping mechanism for some folks,” Cassese explains. “Public health research suggests women are engaging in preventative health behaviors more than men – so it seems like there were maybe two coping strategies at work, and one was appealing a little more to men and the other was appealing a little more to women (on average) at the time of our survey.’”
In the UK, there’s no straightforward data suggesting a significant difference between men and women when it comes to believing in conspiracy theories. Professor Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent, theorises that while all genders might privately believe in COVID conspiracies, it is generally men who might be more likely to be in the public eye for such beliefs.
“Most prominent ‘conspiracy theorists’ are men and the people we tend to see at lockdown protests, storming the capitol in the US, etc. are mostly men too,” she tells me over email. “However, I think there is a difference between believing in or entertaining conspiracy theories and having beliefs that are so strong that a person is willing to act on those beliefs. This may be where the gender differences lie.”
A sense of victimhood could be playing a role in COVID conspiracy theory beliefs. “People who perceive themselves as being a victim are more likely to believe in conspiracies,” Dr Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at Northumbria University, explains over a call.
“So even if they weren’t a victim – they were a typical white male cisgender American Republican – if they felt that they were a victim, they had high levels of collective victimhood, and were more likely to believe in conspiracies and act on them.”
Though it is pleasing to know that I don’t have a “thing” for conspiracy theorists, it’s also worrying that some young men might be feeling the weight of the pandemic and acting out in ways that might harm themselves and others.
Despite the de-platforming of COVID conspiracy theorists online and warnings plastered all over social media, conspiratorial thinking isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. “They bloom around times of crisis in society, so it can be terrorist attacks, political change, or high-risk outbreaks,” says Jolley. “These events breed feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and threat. Believing in the conspiracy offers an explanation for what's happening. It is more manageable, tangible and simpler to believe than the truth.”
The answer to all of this, Jolley says, is critical thinking – regardless of your gender or background. We've got a long way to go in that regard. “Work needs to be done on an individual and social level, where people are given the skillsets to be able to ask and evaluate questions,” he says, “so that when an event happens, like a terrorist attack or a virus outbreak, they have the skills to be able to evaluate what is happening, and in essence, to feel empowered to not necessarily be drawn to a conspiracy narrative.”