In the past few months we’ve heard some pretty wild and sinister claims about the coronavirus pandemic. 5G towers are spreading COVID-19. China deliberately concocted COVID-19 in a lab. Bill Gates is planning to use an eventual coronavirus vaccine to plant microchips in us all. Mandatory face masks are part of a ‘deep state’ plot to keep us living in fear. This profusion of new conspiracy theories makes it tempting to believe that they are the other virus currently sweeping the globe.
A lot of folks are blaming the internet and, specifically, social media. Indeed, the World Health Organisation even warned of a massive ‘infodemic’ accompanying the spread of coronavirus. In other words, the overabundance of both accurate and inaccurate information sweeping through the internet is making it difficult for people to pinpoint trustworthy sources of guidance when they need it. The disinformation about testing and vaccines is the reason 10,000 people in Australia have refused to be tested for coronavirus and that, according to a YouGov poll, almost a third of Brits said they may refuse a COVID-19 vaccine.
Trumpism and conspiracies hitting the mainstream
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the world has felt like ‘conspiracy central’ in the last few years. It seems like conspiracy theories have risen, not least because the man in charge of the world’s most powerful country is a conspiracy theorist himself. Donald Trump has claimed that refugees coming in from Syria could be ISIS terrorists, that Barack Obama wasn’t really born in the US, that Muslims cheered after 9/11, that climate change is a China-orchestrated hoax. He’s even claimed that the noise from windmills causes cancer. The man is determined to make people distrust everything and everyone who isn’t him. In the case of a lot of his supporters, it works.
It is also true that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, conspiracy theories have skirted much closer to mainstream consciousness than we’re used to. It is highly disconcerting that prominent celebrities—including Woody Harrelson, Lee Ryan, Keri Hilson, M.I.A, John Cusack and Amanda Holden—have promoted to their millions of followers what is arguably the most absurd of all coronavirus conspiracy theories: that 5G causes it. The fast spread of these beliefs is what led to the burning down of 5G towers in several cities across the UK in April.
Doctors have accused social media platforms of having blood on their hands because they haven’t been doing enough to curb the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation. But is this fair? Is the internet really the enemy here? Or was conspiratorial thinking actually more widespread and deeply held before the internet even existed?
Conspiracies in the pre-internet era
In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Shortly afterwards, most Americans believed that he was killed by a mysterious group of conspirators, not by a lone gunman. By 1975, a whopping 80% of Americans believed in one form of JFK conspiracy theory or another. Similarly, by 1997, 71% of Americans believed that the government was covering up the existence of UFOs. And when the government admitted that what crashed in Roswell was a top-secret Project Mogul balloon for spying on the Soviets, 75% believed it was a lie.
By contrast, a poll conducted by The Atlantic at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic, analysing conspiracy beliefs relating to coronavirus and other subjects, found that only 31% of people believe that COVID-19 was created and spread on purpose. It also found that 54% of people believe that the wealthiest 1% of society secretly control the government; 42% believe in the ‘deep state’ working against Donald Trump; and 20% believe that Obama faked his citizenship to illegally usurp the presidency. A similar study conducted here in the UK by the University of Oxford found that 59% of adults in England believe to some extent that the government is misleading us about the cause of COVID-19. But when asked whether they believed that the virus was a China-invented bio-weapon, only 20.2% agreed “a little” and an even smaller 5.5% agreed “completely”. And 21% said they believed that the virus was caused by 5G.
Granted, some of these figures sound alarming. But they’re not nearly as high as the 80% and 71% believing in JFK and UFO conspiracy theories in the pre-internet era. And if we go back even further in time, the impact of conspiracy theories was far worse than it is now.
In the 17th century, an English priest called Titus Oates fabricated the Popish Plot—a widely believed conspiracy theory that Catholics were planning to assassinate King Charles II. It gripped the country in anti-Catholic hysteria resulting in the execution of 35 innocent people, a ban on Catholics entering London and, eventually, the exclusion of Catholics from the English throne. Also in the 17th century, the Salem witch trials saw more than 200 people accused of witchcraft and 20 people executed. During the Black Death in the 14th century, Jewish communities were accused of deliberately spreading the disease by poisoning wells, leading to the Strasbourg massacre of 2,000 Jews in 1349 and the annihilation of 210 Jewish communities by 1351.
No increase in conspiracy theories in the internet age
Social scientists are yet to find evidence that conspiracy beliefs have increased in the internet age. Many conspiracy theories, including those surrounding JFK’s assassination, have actually lost support as internet access and use has spread.
But that, to me, makes perfect sense. Before the internet, people had far fewer sources to influence them. A lot of people would read one newspaper with one perspective, one agenda, one political slant. And trying to root out the facts behind a story was much more difficult than it is now. Nowadays people read multiple news sources and there is an abundance of information for them to turn to. It’s inevitable that people will read the wrong thing but it also means there’s much wider availability of the right thing. And while the WHO is right to warn of the dangers of an ‘infodemic’, I would argue that too much information is always better than too little.
I think coronavirus conspiracy beliefs will drop as the information becomes clearer. Even I can sympathise with people jumping to all sorts of conclusions when the world’s governments are so inconsistent with one another as to the threat of COVID-19 and how we should deal with it. But it’s because they don’t really know themselves. Scientists are learning more and more about the virus by the day but the science isn’t exact because the virus is new and they’re still learning. There’s still a lot we don’t know.
A study by Moulding et al in 2016 also found that conspiratorial beliefs are linked with feelings of social isolation, alienation and powerlessness. Well, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? In lockdown we’ve all been cut off from our friends and family and many of us will have felt powerless and socially disengaged. Those states of being are ones in which conspiratorial ideas thrive.
As people start feeling less isolated and we get firmer and more sensible answers from our governments and scientific communities, coronavirus conspiracy beliefs will drop. We’ve already seen the 5G/COVID-19 conspiracy theories return to the fringe alongside Flat Earth and the Reptilian Elite after their very short spell in the mainstream. And it’s because the claims have been debunked and ridiculed all over the… internet.
So, you see, the internet is not in any way a bad thing in these uncertain times. On the contrary, we’re far better off with it than without it. Perhaps the internet makes it easier for conspiracy theories to spread. But this is superseded by the fact that it makes it much easier for conspiracy theories to die.
Next month: the death of Jeffrey Epstein