Why coronavirus has infected conspiracy theorists so badly
OPINION: The Covid-19 pandemic has infected well over four million people around the world and killed at least 300,000. New Zealand may appear to be decisively heading in the right direction, but this isn’t the case globally and, as the pandemic worsens, the death toll rises, and the economic depression settles in, pandemic-related conspiracy theories will become more prevalent.
In the aftermath of events that shock the system, as Covid-19 has, it is natural to seek answers. It is the brain's coping mechanism for making sense of things. It is how we as a species have developed over millennia to explain anything beyond our understanding. And it is there, when the dust is yet to settle, and emotions run high, that misinformation thrives.
This is the backdrop to upcoming elections in both the United States and New Zealand, and it means we must be much more vigilant about the information that is shared, regardless of how slick the packaging. Policy decisions can always mean the difference between life and death, but this is especially true in a global pandemic. Many people have lost their incomes, daily routines, and sense of security, leaving us vulnerable for exploitation by people who to peddle dishonest or inaccurate information in the name of truth.
Coronavirus has infected conspiracy theorists, but we cannot afford to let misinformation thrive, writes Abbas Nazari.
Whenever there are shocking tragedies, conspiracy theorists jump to the fore. This has been the case in other high-profile events that have captured the news cycle. Take for example, the helicopter crash that resulted in the death of nine people, including basketball star Kobe Bryant. Before the flames had been doused, online trolls had manufactured theories on the cause of the crash.
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The most common theory was that Bryant was assassinated by someone with ties to Hillary and Bill Clinton. The evidence? A screenshot of a tweet sent from Bryant's Twitter account saying: "I have information that will lead to the arrest of Hillary Clinton." It was a fake, of course, a screenshot created on websites used to make do-it-yourself memes.
Kobe Bryant's death led to bizarre conspiracy theories, including one involving Bill and Hillary Clinton
Another narrative that made the rounds was that Bryant was taken out by big pharma⎯based on an ongoing legal battle regarding the trademark of his nickname "The Black Mamba," which pitted him against a pharmaceutical company marketing diet pills under the same name. There are countless other theories, each more fantastic than the last.
The Kobe conspiracy encircled a small portion of very dedicated fans or those who follow celebrities. Chances are, you have never heard these distorted versions of events. However, the conspiracies regarding the current pandemic have reached a far larger portion of society.
Not everyone has the time to sift through an article and click on the links or annotations to see which sources are being cited, and forensically examine the contents of everything they see online. But there is a lot we can do to counter misinformation in our communities and our politics, and there are productive ways to reach someone in your circle who keeps asking whether you have seen the video about how the virus is spread by 5G, or how it was made in a Chinese lab, or that it is bio-weapon for population control.
Judy Mikovits in 2011, the year she was sacked from her lab. The viral video Plandemic puts her discredited claims squarely in the spotlight.
Many people absorbing and sharing misinformation are doing so out of curiosity, rather than conviction about the claims being made, and the first group is much easier to reach than the “true believers”. Empathy is key, as it is more effective to gently talk through why you may think the information they’ve been exposed to is incorrect, rather than a personal attack for being gullible or stupid.
It is worth taking the time to affirm that it is natural for people to have questions during times of crisis, and to see if you can steer your friend who is sharing coronavirus theories they found in “the explore section of Instagram” towards some more reputable and reliable sources, all of whom have made coverage of the coronavirus available free of charge.
The 26-minute Plandemic video is an alarming example of the high-stakes challenge of countering misinformation as coronavirus continues to be a disruptor. The viral video put a discredited scientist, Judy Mikovits, who was fired from her lab in 2011, squarely in the spotlight. Her wild claims, including that masks “activate” the virus, and that Anthony Fauci, director of the American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, personally tried to derail her work, have been broadly condemned and discredited.
However, that didn’t stop the clip from racking up more than eight million views before it was taken down by major social media outlets. Analysis of the viewership data shows that the video appeared most often in groups devoted to the QAnon conspiracy, anti-vaccine movement, and conspiracy theories in general. Mikovits has become a star in the far-Right movement, gaining an army of Twitter followers, and being presented as the academic face of the Reopen American movement.
Plandemic’s documentary-style footage, warm, trustworthy narrator, and careful editing gives the impression of a being something akin to a thorough 60 Minutesinvestigation. Indeed, many of the videos circulating around conspiracy theorist forums follow the same format: assert that they are presenting the truth, provide little evidence apart from blatant lies, or quote-mining, where a line is stripped of its context to the point where it can be repurposed to make a completely new point, and then they cover their tracks with references to free speech or assertions that, if the video is taken down, it is just further proof that elites do not want the truth to get out.
And it is an approach that is gaining traction. A survey of 2,000 Americans (by Harvard Kennedy School, March 17-19) revealed that one-third believe the virus was manmade and spread on purpose. The internet has blurred the lines between “the truth” and what is factually, tangibly, measurably real. As some social scientists have pointed, we now live in a post-truth era, full of “alternative facts”.
Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is accused by Mikovits of trying to derail her work. Most of her claims have been widely discredited.
After the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks, New Zealand's Government swiftly and appropriately legislated against certain types of firearms. Canada has followed suit in the aftermath of the Nova Scotia shootings. But trawl through the online forums and it is ablaze with chatter that the massacres were government-sanctioned “false flag” operations, a decoy to disarm the public, and pave a path of least resistance for a tyrant government.
Not only is this disregarding the victims of these tragedies, but if left unchecked, followers of these theories will continue to dig in their heels. It is one of the many reasons that common-sense gun laws in the US never pass.
It is easy in New Zealand for the scale and style of such misinformation to feel far away and not that relevant, so why should we care? One important idea is that policies adopted today in the US could become New Zealand’s foreign policy challenges tomorrow. We are already seeing the Trump administration pressure countries to lay blame on China.
But most importantly, it is the principle that the truth is maintained without the shadow of a doubt. In order to beat the pandemic, it is important that appropriate medical guidelines are communicated and followed.
We are already seeing a major increase in the anti-vaccine community. What if a vaccine becomes available, but a major portion of the population decides not to vaccinate, because of the theories they have been exposed to online? This will blunt the effectiveness of a vaccine rollout and mean that people remain vulnerable.
We have to fight misinformation, no matter how slick the packaging. It may mean having that awkward conversation with your friend about 5G.
* Abbas Nazari studied at the University of Canterbury, and is undertaking a masters in security studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC.