by: Zeynab Farah, Laraib Fatima, Alicia Leon, Sorcha Taylor, Katarina Seleci & Paola Ingabire
Check out the project website here!
A Summary of “Fact or Fiction? Myth-busting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories” by Alec Wills
Conspiratorial thought is a recurring phenomenon in Western society. From the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, conspiracy theories seem to inevitably find large and receptive audiences¹. In the recent past, their relegation to niche recesses of YouTube and/or obscure documentary films made them a somewhat benign occurrence, but the narratives emerging around the COVID-19 pandemic have significant implications for public health and the future of the world². This comes at a time when social media makes it easier to spread misinformation³, while conspiracy theorists are elevated to the highest echelons of institutional power, notably the former president of the United States Donald Trump. These elements, combined with a society that has seemingly no shortage of cynical and distrustful people, provide an ideal petri dish for outlandish claims regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. UTSC’s Global & International Health Week’s “Fact or Fiction? Myth-Busting COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories” seminar analyzed and critiqued these theories and challenged their presuppositions. Below, I offer a reflection on this presentation and the topics discussed.
The presentation began by differentiating misinformation from disinformation. The former refers to incorrect or misleading information not necessarily disseminated for deceptive purposes. The latter uses misinformation in the forms of hoaxes and propaganda for the specific purpose of misleading and instilling fear in part of the population. Following these introductory definitions, five COVID-19 conspiracy theories were presented:
- Personal protective masks are unnecessary, harmful, a violation of human rights, and/or emasculating.
- COVID-19 is being used for population control by killing off the elderly.
- Bill Gates is microchipping the population through vaccinations.
- COVID-19 is an orchestrated pandemic by some nefarious organizations (i.e. The New World Order, the Illuminati, etc.).
- COVID-19 was created in a laboratory and is being used as a biological weapon.
Each presenter explained the origins of their selected theory and why it qualifies as disinformation. For example, skepticism to mask-wearing originated with inconsistent messaging on the part of health experts. They feared for a shortage of personal protective equipment and reckless public behaviour resulting from a false sense of safety. Moreover, conflicting information within the scientific literature bolstered skepticism. Although initial messaging was flawed, it did not indicate what the conspiracy theories would later claim, but it nonetheless served as adequate fuel for the fire. Similarly, the high mortality rate among the elderly in primary care homes, as well as the appalling conditions the Canadian military discovered in some of these facilities, gave credence to the idea that COVID-19 is a mechanism for depopulation. What might have begun as misinformation was then politicized, and out of its politicization, disinformed narratives were weaponized as tools of political influence.
Importantly, what stood out in the presentation was the way that rational concerns are warped and twisted into far-reaching and fallacious claims. As discussed at the beginning of the seminar, conspiracy theories are not always hogwash; there may be elements of truth to them. However, the examples above illustrate the way that legitimate problems are obscured by fantastical narratives. At best, this shifts attention away from real issues and policy proposals of substantive impact. At worst, it obstructs solutions and makes the problem even worse; such as increasing vaccine hesitancy and thereby making it more difficult to reach herd immunity4. Therefore, such narratives are not only inaccurate but can cause material damage.
While COVID-19 is a serious threat to both public health and the economy, the conspiracies that have emerged may pose a substantial barrier to overcoming it. What might explain their popularity? Uscinski et al. (2020) find that distrust of experts and authority figures, predilections towards conspiratorial thought, and ideological affiliations are the drivers of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs. Oliver and Wood (2014) argue that “the likelihood of supporting conspiracy theories is strongly predicted by a willingness to believe in other unseen, intentional forces and an attraction to Manichean narratives” (p. 952). In other words, a correlation between holding conspiratorial views with a more general belief in unseen forces that are actively conspiring to create some outcome. Coming up with answers to this issue is immensely challenging.
The presentation concluded with examples of governments fighting disinformation, including fines for promoting myths online in Vietnam and a digital ministry in Taiwan responsible for thwarting its dissemination. With liberalism so culturally ingrained in the West, such proposals will be extremely controversial and politically challenging, and not without justification given their implications for free expression. Yet, even the most convincing and eloquent free speech absolutists, from John Stuart Mill to Noam Chomsky, did not envision the deluge of information individuals experience in the digital age. No longer is it an issue of the state, or of the corporation, or even the tyranny of the majority. Today, any person can say anything, no matter how irrational or ridiculous, and potentially have access to a platform that influences millions. It is difficult to say what, if any, definitive solutions there are; but seminars like the one discussed in this reflection are invaluable to starting a dialogue, raising awareness, and bringing potential solutions to the table.
¹Analyzing survey results from 2011, Oliver and Wood (2014) find that 55% of Americans believed at least one of the conspiracy theories they were questioned about.
²Jolly, Douglas, and Trip (2014) find that there is a negative relationship between belief in anti-vaccine conspiracies and a person’s intention to vaccinate his/her hypothetical children.
³ In a systematic literature review, Wang, Mckee, Torbica, and Stuckler (2019) find that healthcare related misinformation is mostly concentrated on the subject of vaccines, and that “there is broad consensus that misinformation is highly prevalent on social media and tends to be more popular than accurate information” (p. 8).
4 According to the United States Census Bureau (2021) 11.4% of adults “are hesitant about receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.” In Wyoming, Idaho, Louisiana, and Alabama, these percentages are 27.6, 22.3, 21.9, and 20.6, respectively. While these figures do not imply causation with conspiratorial beliefs, they nonetheless represent the importance of limiting misinformation which causes vaccine hesitancy.
Jolley, D., Douglas, K. M., & Tripp, R. (2014). The effects of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories on vaccination intentions. PloS One, 9(2), e89177-e89177.
Oliver, E. J., & Wood, T. J. (2014). Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 952-966.
United States Census Bureau. (2021, May 19). Household Pulse Survey COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker. Retrieved May 2021, from United States Census Bureau: https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/interactive/household-pulse-survey-covid-19-vaccination-tracker.html
Uscinski, J. E., Enders , A. M., Klofstad, C., Seelig , M., Funchion , J., Everett , C., . . . Murthi , M. (2020). Why do people believe COVID-19 conspiracy theories? The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 1, 1-12.
Wang, Y., McKee, M., Torbica, A., & Stuckler, D. (2019). Systematic Literature Review on the Spread of Health-related Misinformation on Social Media. Social Science & Medicine (1982), 240, 1-12.