Mental Health Impact / Japan’s Middle-Aged and Elderly Fall Prey to Conspiracy Theories

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A university student looks at messages sent by her mother, who had become an ardent believer of conspiracy theories. (Part of the image has been modified.)

This is the third and final installment in a series probing the impact of online content on our cognition through interviews with people who have suffered mentally and physically after being affected by unbalanced online content.


As the university student watched a video on her smartphone with a title about the deep state ruling the world, her worst fears about what had happened to her mother were confirmed.

Her mother, who is in her 50s, had recommended the video with the disturbing title in November 2020 and sent a link to it over the Line messaging app. Late one night at their home in Tokyo, the daughter, with some trepidation, clicked on the link. The video contained images of terrified children overseas, with narration in English and Japanese subtitles.

The video claimed a secret organization controlled by wealthy people around the world was buying and selling children, and that then U.S. President Donald Trump was fighting against this great evil.

The daughter was confused by the lengthy video’s content, which she found difficult to understand. Before long, a message from her mother arrived on her smartphone.

“This video is from people who are risking their lives to tell you the truth,” her mother wrote.

The daughter looked up information about the video and found that it was trumpeting conspiracy theories embraced by the U.S.-based QAnon movement. She felt despondent.

“Does my mother seriously believe this stuff?”

At around this time, comments suggesting there had been fraud in the U.S. presidential election were spreading through social media. The mother started insisting that the deep state was involved in this alleged wrongdoing. When other family members pointed out there was no proof backing up the allegations, the mother would glare angrily at them and, with tears in her eyes, say, “In my world, this is the truth.”

The mother had become a completely different person to her daughter.

Social media users can get stuck in a filter bubble, leading them to be steeped in extremist or sensationalist thoughts.

The mother, who had often been glued to her computer all day, had at some point fallen into that trap. She had been a serious woman with a strong sense of justice. She taught her daughter, when she was young, that she should go talk to children who were being bullied. The mother would often stand up for her daughter when she scolded by her father.

At the same time, the mother was an introvert with few friends. She had always spent a lot of time in front of her computer. She rarely left the house after the COVID-19 pandemic started, spending her days scrolling through Twitter, YouTube and other online sites.

The mother gravitated toward the conspiracy theories spreading online without her family even noticing. She started sending messages claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines “contain poison and microchips.” Her behavior escalated when the rollout of vaccinations began in Japan.

“Don’t you dare get vaccinated,” the mother tearfully begged her family. “If any of you get the shot, I’ll die of despair.”

The daughter, her younger sister and father discussed the situation. They decided there was no option but to hide the fact they had been vaccinated from the mother.

The mother started bringing up conspiracy theories even during small talk at home and she increasingly derided relatives who did not agree with her views. The younger sister moved away to attend a regional university because “living together was exhausting.” The father also started avoiding having conversations at home.

“Perhaps the mother I had before will never come back,” the visibly worn-out daughter said.

Powerlessness, alienation

During the pandemic, many baseless stories spread online, such as those alleging that some people were secretly manipulating global events to unfairly rake in profits. Many people became avid believers of these stories.

Major factors behind this include cognitive bias and other habits of the brain, as well as negative emotions such as helplessness and frustration felt by individuals.

“Conspiracy theories very simply set up ‘enemies,’ and when people get convinced that everything that happens has been planned by these enemies, it can help ease their feelings of helplessness and frustration,” said Tokyo Woman’s Christian University Prof. Yoshiaki Hashimoto, an expert on the psychology of the information society. “Believers can also gain a sense of superiority because they feel that ‘only they know a hidden truth.’”

According to research conducted by U.S. psychologists, people who believe conspiracy theories tend to have strong feelings of powerlessness and alienation.

In Japan, these people strikingly tend to be middle-aged or elderly, rather than the younger generations.

In February 2022, researchers at the International University of Japan’s Center for Global Communications conducted a survey on about 20,000 people ages 20-69. The survey found the proportion of people who were deceived by false information about politics tended to increase as they got older.

“Political matters and happenings in the world are becoming material for conspiracy theories,” Hashimoto explained. “Middle-aged and elderly people are very interested in these topics, so we need to be aware that there is a high risk of them being drawn to statements that satisfy their feelings while they are online.”

Once a person falls for a conspiracy theory, they often can end up believing other seemingly unrelated stories.

Insightful in this regard is an analysis of Twitter messages in March 2022 by University of Tokyo Prof. Fujio Toriumi, an expert in computational social science. Toriumi found that 88% of people who had spread a groundless assertion in Japanese that “Ukraine government members are neo-Nazis” had also previously shared anti-vaccine messages and 47% had shared content related to QAnon.

If individuals believe in a conspiracy theory to make up for something that is missing in their life, extracting them from the information morass will be difficult.