Coronavirus Conspiracies: A Strain We Have Never Seen Before

This article is part of the Time Capsule 2020 project, click here to find out more.

By Kenneth Quek

Where was the coronavirus created – in a secret Chinese laboratory, or in Bill Gates’ luxury basement? Do hairdryers help in curing it, or would injecting hydroxychloroquine into your bloodstream be a better option? Does the coronavirus even exist? Like many other times of duress, our global pandemic has spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories attempting to provide explanations of the novel coronavirus, from where it comes from to how it spreads.

Conspiracy theories are popular in trying times for the sense of order and explanatory power they provide; according to Social Psychologist Professor Karen Douglas, people turn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to ‘cope with those feelings [of uncertainty and powerlessness]’ [1]. And given that we are going through a public health crisis the scale of which we have not seen in our lifetimes, it is at least understandable that people would seek some security from an explanation of it all. It might seem intuitive, then, to dismiss coronavirus conspiracy theories (henceforth referred to as CCTs) as just another bundle of crazy ramblings that surely accompany any major event; after all, conspiracy theories flourish in chaos. However, upon closer inspection, we may realise that CCTs are quite different from the garden-variety conspiracy theory, and indeed may be a set of unique conspiracy theories the likes of which we have never dealt with before.

Perhaps it would be best to start with exploring what exactly a Conspiracy Theory is. It is not merely a theory about a conspiracy – after all, history is filled with stories of conspiracy, and adopting this definition would mean that ‘every politically and historically literate person is a big-time conspiracy theorist’ [2]. Since we obviously have something more specific in mind when discussing conspiracy theories, we are going to need a more sophisticated definition than that. In order to separate theories about conspiracies from what he calls Big-C-Big-T Conspiracy Theories, the University of Warwick’s very own Dr. Quassim Cassam outlines several distinguishing features of Conspiracy Theories [3]. Of them, two in particular stand out with reference to CCTs: firstly, that Conspiracy Theories are contrarian (contrary to the official view or obvious explanation), and that they are esoteric (known and understood only to a select few who are ‘capable of seeing the truth’). 

For the first time, Conspiracy Theorists can actually deny that they are Conspiracy Theorists by virtue of trusting the ‘official’ presidential account.

In other Conspiracy Theories, the official view is often very clear: with the ‘9/11 was an inside job’ conspiracy, for example, even for people who endorse the Conspiracy Theory, the official view is quite clearly that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the bombing, as opposed to George Bush. However, with the White House actively sowing mistrust in government institutions [4], it is now unclear who the authority is. While it may be clear for the average citizen that Dr. Fauci and other medical authorities are the official view, many Conspiracy Theorists might take President Trump’s word as the official view. For the first time, Conspiracy Theorists can actually deny that they are Conspiracy Theorists by virtue of trusting the ‘official’ presidential account. CCTs create deeper questions we have to ask in order to understand them: we must investigate not only why people do not trust the official account, but also how people decide what the official account is to begin with. 

We can glean another unique feature by distinguishing between Conspiracy Theories formed after the subject of the conspiracy and Conspiracy Theories formed during it. Most Conspiracy Theories fall under the former category: The Sandy Hook, Jeffrey Epstein and MH370 conspiracies were all formed after the event had happened. However, CCTs are different in that they are created while the subject of their conspiracy is still happening around us. This has massive implications on what the Conspiracy Theory does, and more specifically what it demands of its believers. While post-hoc conspiracies mostly impose only doxastic, or belief-related, obligations (For example, the Lee Harvey Oswald conspiracy demands only that we believe in it), Conspiracy Theories about current events imply ethical demands as well. CCTs do not just demand that you ought to believe in them, they also tell you whether you should wear a mask, what goods and services you should consume, and even who to vote for. While most Conspiracy Theories posit merely theoretical accounts of how events actually played out, Conspiracies about current events carry with them questions about how we should act now. 

In this respect, CCTs are quite similar to the anti-vax conspiracy, given that they both prescribe ethical obligations. However, while vaccinations are a normal and routine phenomenon in our lives, the coronavirus pandemic is something quite unique to our time period. This grants it a greater amount of primacy and immediacy, and makes its ethical claims far more urgent and far-reaching. Unlike anti-vax conspiracies, which mostly only demand that you do not vaccinate yourself or your children, the near-omnipresent way that coronavirus dominates our lives, our politics and our relationships in the current climate means that CCTs bring with them the demands of an entire lifestyle – one that stands in defiance of public safety guidelines, and in support of whomever they see as willing to stand up to the corrupt scientific community. Even now, this is quite clearly evident: as anti-mask protests surge across the world [5] and 5G towers get destroyed on suspicions of spreading the virus [6], it is hard to deny that CCTs have profoundly impacted the lives of not just those who believe them, but everyone around them as well.  

What do these differences mean for how we should view and approach coronavirus conspiracy theories? Far from being just a theoretical anomaly, the uniqueness of CCTs has real-world implications on how they figure into our current social and political climate. Perhaps the most obvious of these implications would be how they have made it socially acceptable and commonplace to be suspicious of trusted institutions that give us information. Conspiracy Theories, by their very nature,  ‘throw into doubt the various institutions that have been set up to generate reliable evidence […] [and require] a pervasive scepticism about our public, fact-gathering institutions and the individuals working in them’ [7]. When conspiracies such as CCTs get propelled into the mainstream periphery, the doubt they spread shares the spotlight. More than ever in recent history, trust in science has become a political issue, due in large part to President Trump either endorsing or at least refusing to deny many CCTs. With President Trump criticising now-president-elect Biden for ‘[listening] to the scientists’ [8], what used to be fringe paranoia towards science and other trusted bodies has become so household and common that it is now a genuine topic for debate in a key political event. The spread of CCTs poses a threat not just to how our society comes to perceive and acquire knowledge, but also to how it is fundamentally run. 

With President Trump criticising now-president-elect Biden for ‘[listening] to the scientists’ [8], what used to be fringe paranoia towards science and other trusted bodies has become so household and common that it is now a genuine topic for debate in a key political event.

This segues into a more insidious problem that CCTs pose. In his study on predictors of belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories, Dr. Viren Swami found that belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories were positively correlated with beliefs in other conspiracy theories [9]. If this were true, the massive spread and politicisation of CCTs inflicts harms that extend far beyond what is simply contained within the theories themselves; they could in fact serve as a sort of ‘gateway drug’ to larger, more outrageous and dangerous views. Conspiracy Theories belong to ‘a substantial […] tradition [that for a large part of its history] was dominated by the idea of a Jewish plot to take over the world’ [10]. Even with CCTs, the shadow of antisemitism looms large over some theories in particular – the theory that masks are the first step in a plot by the wealthy elite to subject the United States to Sharia Law, for example, echoes the antisemitic theories adopted by the Nazi Party that assert that the Jewish elite were in a secret plot to dominate the world by subverting Christendom [11]. It is easy to see how subscribing to the supposedly more mild and socially acceptable worldviews suggested by CCTs such as these would put someone in a position to descend further down the rabbithole of Conspiracy Theories; and given how, as earlier mentioned, CCTs are much more politically influential than most other Conspiracy Theories that came before it, this has dire consequences not just on the popularity of the attitudes present in these earlier theories, but also how much of a role they play in our politics. This might seem speculative and far-fetched, but considering how antisemitic Conspiracy Theories are already merging with CCTs [12], this threat may be worth taking seriously. 

In this way, CCTs are viral in very much the same way that the subject of their scrutiny is: it is a new strain that we have never quite encountered before, propagated by a perfect storm of circumstance in an unprepared world and a global political climate that has little regard for the value of truth. Current media coverages of CCTs often frame it as ‘yet another wackjob theory’; while we may be tempted to treat them as nothing more than ridiculous conjecture (and for good reason), perhaps dismissing them so offhandedly would be a mistake. We ought to monitor and better understand the nature of this new threat, lest we be caught unready. 

Bibliography:

[1]https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/coronavirus-why-do-well-informed-people-subscribe-to-conspiracy-theories-36412; ‘Conspiracy theories are also appealing to people in times of crisis. When people are uncertain and feel powerless, they might turn to conspiracy theories in an attempt to cope with those feelings.’

[2] Pigden, C. R. (2007). Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom. Episteme: A Journal of Social Epistemology, 4(2), 219-232.

[3] Cassam, Q. (2019). Conspiracy Theories. Polity Press.

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2020-54774137; ‘The White House has accused leading infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci of playing politics days before the election in an interview about the coronavirus pandemic.’

[5]https://www.newsweek.com/coronavirus-europe-anti-mask-protests-spain-belgium-germany-uk-france-1525485; ‘The demonstrations are the latest in a string of anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests reported this month in Europe, including in the U.K. and Germany, with growing anti-mask sentiment reported in France.’

[6]https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/4/21207927/5g-towers-burning-uk-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory-link; ‘5G phone masts are being set alight in the UK, after online conspiracy theories have misleadingly linked the cell towers to the coronavirus pandemic.’

[7] Keeley, B. (1999). Of Conspiracy Theories. The Journal of Philosophy, 96(3).

[8] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/listen-to-scientists/

[9] Swami, V., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2009). Unanswered questions: A preliminary investigation of personality and individual difference predictors of 9/11 conspiracist beliefs. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24(6), 749-761. DOI:10.1002/ACP.1583

[10] Byford, J. (2015). Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[11]https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/protocols.htm

[12]https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-53997203; ‘These two ideas are now increasingly coming together, in a grand conspiracy mash-up.’

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