How To Debunk Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

From lies about 5G to vast conspiracies of a Bill Gates vaccine plot, COVID-19 has sparked an avalanche of conspiracy theories. Here's how to spot them.
(Source: International Telecommunication Union/Creative Commons License)

(Source: International Telecommunication Union/Creative Commons License)

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Dr. Miranda Christou is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Associate Professor in Sociology of Education at the University of Cyprus.

Did you know that the anagram of “Carnivorous” spells “Coronavirus?” Think about it!!!!!!!
(a Facebook post)

This was posted by a vegan who peddles all types of conspiracies about Covid-19, arguing that the virus is a hoax while simultaneously maintaining that the pandemic is nature’s response to our love for meat. I later realized that this was initially tweeted by PETA in February 2020. This trivial coincidence is actually one of the most thought-provoking remarks I have encountered, given that climate change scientists have recently linked Covid-19 to our relationship with nature. It was certainly a refreshing observation in the middle of scrolling through dark theories of world control on the web!

The most reliable by-product of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, has been the proliferation of Radical Right conspiracy theories. Of course, not all conspiracy theories originate from the Radical Right: believing that Elvis is alive, the earth is flat and Princess Diana was assassinated by MI6 does not reveal one’s ideological inclinations. But most of the Covid-19 conspiracy theories floating around today bear the trademark of Radical Right ideology, including a healthy dose of distrust in mainstream media and a racist conviction that the world is being puppeteered by a handful of (Jewish) individuals.

Thus, apart from creating panic through attributing the virus to open borders, the Radical Right has seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to spread stories of a premeditated Machiavellian hegemonic plot to control the world. The novelty of the virus, its stealthy contagion and the fact that millions currently find themselves in an unprecedented lockdown, makes everyone more susceptible to such radicalization amidst stories of global domination.

Not is all doom and gloom, however. There are several useful sources dedicated to debunking Covid-19 myths: the WHO, for example, features a section on its website mostly focusing on medical issues and Snopes.com constantly posts updates on Covid-19 misinformation; though they have been overwhelmed by the number of falsehoods, their work is vital in keeping ahead of the ever-evolving conspiratorial landscape.

In this piece, I do not attempt to recount each story but I identify four characteristics of the most egregious conspiracy narratives on Covid-19, those that downplay the pandemic as a “media hoax” or consider it a scheme to manipulate the human race. These conspiracies are related to the Radical Right’s affinity for The Great Replacement Theory. The four characteristics do not assess the truthfulness of conspiracy theories; rather, they focus on techniques and effects that reveal the problematic side of these stories.

Furthermore, I am not suggesting a blanket rejection of any story that sounds “weird” or even “ridiculous.” Because the line between what seems to be a conspiracy and the revelation of a cover-up can be very thin. When residents in Flint Michigan started to complain about their water they were initially dismissed as paranoid. But they put their stories together, they organized and got the truth out. Their lives were at stake and they managed to reveal that they were victims to systemic negligence: people not doing their job because they did not care, not because a set of elites gathered in a dark room, smoked cigars and decided to wipe out a (mainly poor, African-American) city through slow lead poisoning. There was indeed a cover-up; but one which pointed to high levels of general incompetence, racism, and classism.

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1. A Conspiracy Theory Speaks To *You* Directly

A text written to enlighten, to share knowledge, and perhaps raise critical questions usually addresses the public in a general manner. A conspiracy theory speaks to *you* directly because the goal is not to inform but to recruit. Conspiracy theories pose direct questions: “Have you noticed that…?”, ‘Why is it that…?”, “Did you ever think why…?” And, in many cases, they end by urging you to “Think about it!!!!!!” and “Wake up people!!!!!!” (with multiple exclamation points(!)). All of these questions are designed to sound urgent and pressing and, most of all, personal. The authors want to show that they care for *you* and your safety.

This type of direct address to the reader may seem honest (we see politicians trying this on the television all the time) but it traffics in our need to feel that we have a sense of control in our lives. As Karen Douglas noted, the allure of “secret knowledge” that “they” don’t want us to have satisfies a psychological craving for autonomy over one’s well-being. Most of these questions, of course, have no answer. But they compel us to keep on reading, so that we are “in the know,” further burying our minds into a rabbit hole of – in this case – extremist propaganda.

2. Conspiracy Theories Use Selective, Disparate Data

In their book, A Lot of People are Saying, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum discuss the phenomenon of a “new conspiracism” which they define as “conspiracy without the theory.” As they rightly point out, classic conspiracism (which takes time to connect the dots and weave an alternative, if improbable, version of reality) has not displaced this new conspiracism, which is characterized by the haphazard hurling of accusations that gain validity from repetition rather than evidence or their apparently consistent (but circular) internal logics.

In the case of Covid-19, both versions are in full display: on the one hand, classic conspiracy theories that put together events for a “logical” conclusion (Bill Gates at Event 201 which was a “pandemic exercise” and the Pirbright Institute which makes vaccines and is funded by Bill Gates) and, on the other hand, the new conspiracist claim that Koby Bryant’s death is linked to Covid-19! (don’t waste your time Googling it)

In both cases, however, disparate events and data are amassed to provide an alternative picture of “reality” behind Covid-19, sorely displaying a lack of epistemic humility. Not surprisingly, some of these conspiracy videos (the classic type that are heavy on theory) have it all: Nazi eugenics, Osama bin Laden, the gun-control debate in the USA, vaccines, Microsoft’s ID2020, the Book of Revelation and even Hegelian dialectics. Predictably, one of them ends with an ominous warning for an “Islamic invasion.”

Furthermore, one of the most characteristic aspects of Covid-19 conspiracy theories is how they use WHO’s data and methodology against WHO itself: for example, using the statistics on influenza mortality against the WHO’s decision to declare Covid-19 as a more dangerous illness because of its degree of contagion and possibly a higher mortality rate. Instead of supporting researchers to crunch the numbers and provide a clearer image of the pandemic, conspiracists force them to issue public interest announcements about the non-existent link between Covid-19 and 5G because some Don Quixotes in the UK and the Netherlands decided to tackle mobile phone masts by burning them to the ground to ostensibly stop what they (incorrectly) see as something responsible for the spread of the disease.

3. Conspiracy Theories Upend The World And Create Alternate Realities

More importantly, conspiracy theories paint a view of the world that is unrecognizable from what we already know based on research in Sociology, History, and Political Science. This is because conspiracy theories upend the world, they create new victims and refuse to acknowledge existing oppressive structures of racism, sexism, and economic inequality. These new victims are supposedly all of us, those of us who are duped into thinking that there are still decent journalists or uncorrupted scientists out there.

Sadly, the reality so far is that Covid-19 has exposed in stark lines what we already know about inequality: that those who are at the bottom of the inequality pyramid will be hit the hardest. That is why African Americans die in higher percentages of Covid-19 and that is why we need to acknowledge that being asked to work from home is a sign of privilege. The pandemic is hardly an equalizer; it has laid bare the deadly consequences of inequality on a global scale. In this sense, conspiracy theories are dangerous because they command our attention to focus on the boogeyman of a Manichaean fight between good and evil instead of finding ways to protect uninsured workers who stock our supermarkets daily or women who are locked at home with abusive partners.

4. Conspiracy Theories Leave You With A Sense Of Despair

Not surprisingly, believing that the world is orchestrated by an all-powerful entity plotting global control—Bill Gates or Soros or the Illuminati—generates feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Conspiracy theories do not propel social change; they cultivate a nihilistic approach to truth that keeps us on our couch. Social Psychologists who studied experimentally the effects of believing in conspiracy theories concluded that conspiracy theories have a system-justifying function by driving attention away from urgent social issues. Conspiracy theories feed off of our most negative instincts to protect ourselves, from anyone and everyone. Thus, instead of fostering solidarity when it is most needed, they sow confusion and discord.

In Summary

The Covid-19 pandemic is dangerous because it takes lives daily and because we are in uncharted scientific territory. Sadly, it is also dangerous because it supports the Radical Right’s vision that “Democracy is bad” and “Diversity, multiculturalism, open borders, & anti-racism are bad.” Conspiracy theories are disorienting because they don’t allow us to focus on how the pandemic may be used as an excuse to erode democracy or implement unwarranted surveillance systems. They take our eye off the ball and away from what we should be thinking about now, ending in a sadder reality than any conspiracy theorist might be able to create.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // CARR / Conspiracy Theories / Coronavirus / Radical Right