Conspiracy theories can be harmless fun; anything is possible, right? However, when they bleed into the real world, they can have disastrous consequences. The results of coronavirus-theories have included unlicensed property damage, such as the recent flurry of immolated 5G towers. In California, a Q-Anon follower crashed a freight train in an attempt to reach the US hospital ship Mercy, which was assisting overburdened hospitals with coronavirus patients. The reason? He wanted to prove to the world that the ship was rescuing children from an elite paedophile ring. No one was injured, but the 44 year old is now facing a twenty-year sentence.
A less tangible, but equally destructive consequence of conspiracies is that they can drown out legitimate criticisms. Instead of convincing yourself that Bill Gates wants to inject a microchip into everyone, you can call into question the influence the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has on the World Health Organisation. The WHO relies heavily on donations from the BMGF, totalling nearly 10 per cent of their entire fund. Some officials, including the former chief of the organisation’s malaria programme Arata Kochi, are concerned that the foundation has too much influence and holds the power to jeopardise its survival if Gates decides the donations should stop. Now that the United States has ceased funding, the BMGF has taken over as top donor. Should the WHO rely so much on one private foundation that comes from a corporate background? It is important to scrutinise where influence comes from and if there may be an ulterior motive. But this must be done with rationale and hard evidence. Despite what you may think, anything is not in fact possible. We should spend our time focussing on criticisms that actually hold weight and can be backed up with proof.
Science is the New Church
Scientists and doctors are becoming increasingly frustrated by coronavirus conspiracies and openly condemn the spread of rumours and misinformation, taking to social and conventional media to address myths and lies. But this is a catch-22. Whatever the mainstream says, theorists will see as fallacy, therefore continuously fuelling the post-truth mirage.
In an increasingly secular world, science has replaced the church as our guiding principal philosophy. Scientists hold power, directing both society and government. In this comparison, the general public are the pious, believing everything that begins with “scientists say…”, anti-establishment conspiracy theorists that doubt mainstream science are akin to pre-Enlightenment atheists questioning the Church’s absolute truth. Like the atheist of the past, many conspiracy theorists have been shunned and shamed by society, although thankfully we’ve moved past burning heretics at the stake. Instead we have become so used to relying on science for the answers that it is provocative to go against the general scientific consensus; for example, the Earth being round. Flat Earthers are, more than anything, anti-establishment. Their primary belief is that scientists, the government, the Elites, the Deep State, etc. are constantly lying to the public for some nefarious purpose. The result is people doubting their entire education and re-learning everything they’ve been taught, including basics like the spherical nature of the Earth.
Nevertheless the general public have their faults too. We lump scientists into a homogenous group, forgetting the fact that they are people with varying opinions, as with religion. So when studies are published that contradicts or undermines the mainstream consensus; for example by suggesting that COVID-19 may not be as fatal as initially thought, these scientists are considered outcasts. They are somewhat comparable with fringe religious groups, such as the Cathars, a now extinct Christian sect who repelled the ideas of the dominant Catholic Church, accusing them of being fraudulent. The Cathars were persecuted by the Catholics, and after a bloody 100-year campaign, the Cathars’ ideology was buried, along with their bodies. Whilst the authors of these studies have their lives intact, they still face scorn, and their findings may never see the light of day. This creates an echo chamber wherein scientific discussion is limited, leading people to excavate the crevasses of the Internet to find alternative studies.
Despite living in a post-truth era, society is desperate for a constant narrative. Shutting out alternatives keeps things simple. We can see this in the media coverage of Sweden, which has gone against the rest of Europe with its relaxed coronavirus strategy. Other EU countries predicted this would end in catastrophe, but so far, Sweden seems to be under control. Mortality rates are indeed much higher than its Nordic neighbours, but they remain lower than the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, France, Ireland and Belgium. According to Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief state epidemiologist, the healthcare system is coping and there are no plans to fully lockdown like the rest of Europe. The real test for Sweden will be in the future. Will a strategy of herd immunity protect them from a second wave and an economic crash?
For some, seeing Sweden defy the general scientific consensus and survive, confirms that restrictive measures are not in accordance with reality and that they are being lied to by scientists again. Of course, there are many other things to consider here: Sweden’s low population density, excellent health care system and a high proportion of people living alone. But we should still analyse the mainstream consensus too and assess whether such stringent lockdowns are necessary. Economically, socially and mentally it has been a catastrophe. Reports of domestic abuse and depression have risen, whilst we are about to endure a devastating economic crash. Lockdown critics, like Peter Hitchins, claim the solution is more devastating than the disease. When the pandemic eases, we need to be able to freely examine both the successes and failures of the lockdown. Still, we can’t allow governments to be satisfied with their responses when clearly they have not worked for so many people. Dialogue should be encouraged and even scientific strategies outside the mainstream should be considered.
In reaction to this information overload, several despotic governments have taken extreme measure by introducing disinformation laws under the umbrella of coronavirus emergency regulations. Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán announced that anyone spreading misinformation will serve prison time. But who decides what misinformation is? Given that Orbán has recently flouted all regard for the EU’s democratic values and only remains in power through corruption, it isn’t erroneous to believe that he will abuse the law to silence anyone who disagrees with Hungary’s official truth. We have reached a point where even debunking disinformation is weaponised: information to combat other information that has been classed as disinformation that may be factual information. Do you feel overwhelmed yet? Living in a post-truth world is exhausting. Even this article is awash with it all. Well done for getting this far.
At the end of the protest I felt muddled. I was there to support the democratic right to protest but at the same time I felt guilty for violating quarantine rules. Was I being an idiot and putting people’s lives at risk? The residents of Rosa Luxembourg Platz felt so. Banners telling protestors to stay at home covered the fronts of the blocky East Berlin apartments. At one point, a young couple on the third floor shouted and laughed from above. But the demonstrators felt like they were doing something important. A man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask had brought a large speaker with him and suddenly the sounds of Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” blasted through the crowd. People cheered and sang along with the chorus until a cohort of police moved in, dragging the masked man away to angry boos from the apoplectic crowd. The chorus, if you don’t know, is ‘Stand up for your rights’, which explains what people believed they were doing here. Germany has a marked history and for many residents, the restrictive lockdown-laws are reminiscent of 1933 or the brutal Stasi of East Germany who ruled through fear and paranoia. For the left at least, demonstrating is a way of ensuring that people don’t forget their constitutional rights.
But then I spotted a sign, propped up on the ground. It read “#Leave No One Behind”; part of a campaign bringing awareness to refugees living in squalid camps with no access to running water, let alone the ability to follow social distancing. This truly important issue was being discarded, side-lined by fallacious conspiracy theories and Germans who, rightfully or wrongfully, feel oppressed. I began to think of all the articles I had read about impoverished villagers in Romania being fined a month’s wages by corrupt police or South Africans being violently beaten by police for going outside. I asked my friend if he believed the oppression in Germany to be imaginary when compared with the oppression in other countries. He answered, “I’m here to support everyone, including the people that cannot protest”. For him, this protest was also about raising awareness of the people well and truly suffering from the effects of the lockdown.
Turn the Frigging Frogs Gay
The way we react to disinformation and conspiracy theories is changing. We are starting to see dialogue with conspiracy theorists instead of the vitriolic shaming that used to be more prevalent a year ago. Because disinformation has moved into the mainstream, it has become necessary to approach it in a mainstream manner. Ostracising theorists without explaining why they are incorrect merely pushes them deeper into the murky depths. Here we can use conspiracy theorist and anti-establishment poster boy, Alex Jones as an example. Jones was immortalised by the Internet for his outrageous statement, “I don’t like them putting chemicals in the water that turn the frigging frogs gay,” which transformed the red-faced radio host into a viral meme. Jones was reacting to the ‘gay bomb’ proposal put forwards to the US Air Force by the Wright Lab, which speculated the use of chemicals against enemy forces that would incite unrestrained homosexual urges. The proposal was widely ridiculed and never actually put into action.
However ridiculous Jones’ statement may seem, there is a little bit of truth behind it, like a lot of conspiracies. A Berkley study found that an effect of atrazine, a common pesticide, turned 1 in 10 male frogs into females and castrated a further 75%. But this study was never really mentioned by the numerous media outlets mocking Jones. In Part 1, I wrote about how conspiracy theories are formed when people start to connect dots that don’t exist. And it is the same here. If a Jones follower finds this study, it reaffirms their belief that the mainstream is lying whilst Jones is to be trusted. This leads to the belief in Jones’ more dangerous claims, such as the Pizzagate conspiracy, which resulted in a man firing shots at a Washington DC pizza restaurant. If, instead of mocking Jones’ gay frogs rant, more information was provided and actual conversations and explanations were broadcasted, Jones’ followers may have been persuaded to think more rationally. Fighting back with more information is, for now, a preferable tactic. Debunking websites like Snopes and FackCheck.org are vital tools. By posting informed, unbiased investigations, they explain misinformation whilst pandering to the allure of conspiracies; knowing more information than other people. Knowing things other people don’t indulges our ego and is one of the reasons they are so popular. We feel superior to the rest of the ‘sheeple’ who simply follow the herd, gobbling up the mainstream narrative.
As I mentioned earlier, conspiracies drown out legitimate criticisms, but we shouldn’t shut them down without any debunking or dialogue. There is another danger in that anything outside the mainstream consensus may be discredited as conspiracy. At the protest, it was hard to tell who had rational concerns for the future of democracy based on hard evidence and who believed Bill Gates plans to inject everyone with microchips. You can’t put these two people in the same boat. People are right to have apprehensions about the increase of government surveillance and privacy invasion post-pandemic. We’ve entered unprecedented times and things will surely change. However, if the public condemn this idea as a conspiracy-theory, then frank discussions and debate can’t be had. And that is not how democracy works.
Part 3 will delve further into surveillance and privacy invasion as well as ways to deal with over-information and post-truths.