15 April 2020

The corona conspiracies are unhinged – but is denouncing people all that helpful?


The go-to tool for puncturing outlandish conspiracy theories is Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest explanation for something is also the most likely to be true.

For example, maybe Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne’s departure from her trademark tomboyish look is evidence that she died in 2002 and was replaced by a clone, as some fans claim. Or maybe she’d just had enough of sweatbands and baggy jeans. As Lavigne herself once sang, inadvertently paraphrasing William of Occam’s rule, “why do you have to go and make things so complicated?”.

While Occam’s razor is a useful rebuttal to conspiracy theories, it also helps explain why they bubble up in the first place: some events are so discombobulating that they defy obvious or easy explanation. And for many, it is more comforting to see order and design, however sinister, in traumatising events than to admit the fragility of a system in which presidents can be assassinated by one lunatic with a gun, or thousands can be murdered by religious fanatics flying planes into New York skyscrapers.

So it is with the coronavirus. To accept the ghastly truth about the pandemic is to acknowledge that a microscopic development in Wuhan — a fatal viral leap from bat to human — has brought life as we know it to a halt and means hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will die. It is a terrifying thought, and a difficult truth to accept. No wonder there has been an explosion of conspiracy theories.

These include the idea that the illness is caused by 5G — which has prompted dozens of arson attacks on cell towers in the UK; the notion that Bill Gates invented the virus to control the world using his vaccines, and the idea that the whole thing is a media concoction – a fact supposedly demonstrated by footage of empty hospital carparks fearlessly collected by the Covid truthers.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long to find hucksters on the internet pushing bogus cures and vaccines. WhatsApp is a digital rumour mill rife with insider accounts of what is really going on inside the hospitals and top secret details of the next stage of the government shutdown.

First things first: all of this is nonsense. Follow the advice of the public health authorities where you live, stick to credible sources, listen to your doctor, ignore the online quacks and cranks.

With that health warning out of the way, there are some aspects of the great deluge of conspiratorial thinking prompted by the pandemic worth considering.

The first is that no amount of Facebook moderation, YouTube video removal or Google search health warnings appears to be stopping the spread of conspiracy theories or flattening the fake news curve. Big tech is dealing with the pandemic the way many have called on them to treat a wide range of issues for years, with proactive, stringent intervention in online speech. Facebook has rolled out AI moderation so strict that it has blocked numerous perfectly legitimate, mainstream news posts.

In spite of all these interventions, the tinfoil hat brigade head to their nearest 5G mast, lighter fluid in hand, and ITV’s Eamonn Holmes gets himself in trouble with some ill-judged remarks about the powers that be. Is that any surprise? After all, conspiracy theorists are generally aware that mainstream sources of information, or gatekeepers like tech firms, would dispute their version of events. Indeed, that is often the point. There are undoubted downsides to the strict policing of online speech, but perhaps, once the dust settles, coronavirus will have demonstrated that the upsides are more limited than many have claimed.

The web may give us the transparency to see conspiratorial thinking and misinformation in all its gory detail, and modern communication technology may hasten their spread, but we should not kid ourselves that they are anything new.

Here, the history of pestilence is instructive. As Richard Evans reminds readers of the New Statesman, pandemic fake news goes back centuries. During the Black Death, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. Many were killed, including several hundred who were burned in Strasbourg. “In 1899,” he writes, “an outbreak of bubonic plague in Honolulu, though limited, led to attacks by an outraged mob on the Chinese quarter, which was burned to the ground.”

While enthusiastic moderation doesn’t appear to be reducing the appeal of obviously unhinged thinking on Covid-19, the pitfalls of stringent policing of the line between real and fake news, acceptable theorising and unacceptable crankery is made clear in a few borderline cases.

In February, Tom Cotton, a prominent Republican Senator and China hawk, was widely criticised for pointing out that Wuhan is home to a biosaftey level four laboratory where scientists research coronavirus. “We don’t have evidence that the disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” he told Fox News. The New York Times accused Cotton of pushing a “fringe theory”. “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” read a Washington Post headline in mid-February. A few weeks later, however, Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that “scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus they had been collecting for scientific study”.

This week, another Post columnist, Josh Rogin, reported that two years ago US Embassy officials “visited a Chinese research facility and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at a the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats.” The story prompted Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley to call evidence that the coronavirus originated at a Chinese lab “inconclusive”. The one in three Americans who think that Covid-19 was made in a lab may well be mistaken, but the idea that a naturally occurring virus escaped a Chinese laboratory, rather than Wuhan’s wet market, hardly seems like a dangerous fringe idea, and at least a possibility.

It is a sign of the strangeness of these times that hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that some were initially hopeful might work as an effective treatment for Covid-19, has become a culture war flashpoint. Trump consistently touts the drug’s possible usefulness. His medical advisors are bearish, however, while a number of problems have emerged from one of the studies that led to much of the early hope. Trump’s critics are right to lambast him for irresponsibly promoting an unproven cure. But the national debate makes it hard to inhabit the space between ‘dangerous quack cure’ and ‘answer to our prayers’.

Meanwhile, Reuters reports that the drug “has within a matter of weeks become a standard of care in areas of the United States hit hard by the pandemic — though doctors prescribing it have no idea whether it works”. This isn’t because America’s hospitals are staffed by Trump supporters, but because of the terrifyingly little medical professionals know about how to fight Covid-19. As one New York Times article put it this week, “No one knows if the spaghetti will stick to the wall”.

In Britain, it is declared with absolute confidence that the Government’s initial response to the virus was disastrous, as though the correct decision was blindingly obvious, and that we all would have seen what the country’s top scientific advisors failed to see. Here, too, is a debate that leaves very little room for uncertainty.

Trying to my best to stay sane whilst making sense of the daily deluge of coronavirus developments, I feel sure that the amount of misinformation swirling around is almost entirely a product of how much we still don’t know about the virus.

We don’t know its exact origin, we don’t know why the death rate is so much higher in men than women, we don’t know whether people who have recovered from Covid-19 are immune, or how long that immunity might last, we don’t know when to expect a vaccine, we don’t know whether there will be fewer cases in the summer. First health experts in the West warned against wearing masks, then they recommend we do so. After weeks worrying about ventilator numbers, some doctors are moving away from using them to treat the disease.

Active attempts at disinformation from foreign governments should be resisted, of course. And there is little harm in tech giants nudging their users towards official guidance and respected news sources. What we do know, and know to be important, should be repeated ad nauseum.

But beyond that, how much is gained in agonising over coronavirus conspiracy theories, or enthusiastically denouncing every left-field opinion out there? Not much, it seems to me. Better to admit how little we know, how disorientating so much of all of this is, and cut one another a little more slack than usual.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.