I started getting annoyed when email after email, text after text, instant message after instant message landed in my various inboxes. Most were prefaced with an insistent “READ THIS before it’s REMOVED!” All were breathless conspiracy dispatches warning me against things like getting Chinese takeout, or suggesting I squirt vinegar up my nose.
Ordinarily, I’d just block people who send stuff like this, but many of these were from old friends and people I really respect. Yes, everyone is scared and thrown off their game by COVID-19. I understand. But how do you protect yourself from succumbing to nutty ideas, and also push back on the silliness without hurting someone you care about?
First things first
The first thing you must do is realize that many of us will, at some point, fall for a conspiracy theory that plays to our general cognitive bias. So don’t feel superior if you aren’t wearing your tinfoil hat right now. Your time will come.
Secondly, remember this susceptibility didn’t spring up out of nowhere. Authority figures and pundits on TV and other mass media can easily prime the public to spread conspiracy theories—for example, Donald Trump’s daily “task force” live television pressers that were high in racism (“Chinese Virus”), misinformation, and outright lies. When the president waxed poetic about his ideas for a possible cure for the coronavirus—injecting disinfectants—Intercept journalist James Risen let the barbs fly.
“Like a medieval demagogue, Trump is spouting quackery and hatred straight out of the 14th century, when panicked Europeans confronting the Black Death strapped live chickens to their bodies, drank potions tinged with mercury and arsenic, and blamed the Mongols and the Jews when none of it worked,” Risen wrote in his op-ed.
A comfortable home for conspiracies
Most psychologists realize that conspiracy theories find a comfortable home among folks whose worlds have been turned upside down by dramatic social, economic, or technological shifts. The trust in institutional structures (government, the media, the police) by the middle and working classes is in tatters, so instead of relying on conventional wisdom, they find solace and personal control in stories they believe have been hidden from everyone by some kind of evil cover-up.
Calls of “FAKE NEWS!” and “DEEP STATE” from perfidious politicians fuel the public’s unwillingness to listen to authorities and experts, exchanging trust in science for neighborhood rumors or the wild, unsubstantiated notions frightened people find online. Conspiracy theories thrive among folks who tend not to think very analytically—and often need some stamp of uniqueness through access to a narrative they believe authority figures are trying to hide. QAnon, anyone?
From silly to dangerous
Once the panic started, alerts became exponentially more persistent and poured into my social media accounts from friends, colleagues, and out-and-out trolls. Beware! The 5G networks are spreading the virus! In the UK, terrified people burned down 77 cellphone towers, never stopping to think that viruses are spread biologically, not electromagnetically. Now they probably have a conspiracy theory as to why their cellphones don’t work.
Then there’s the nefarious plot by Bill and Melinda Gates to implant digital microchips into everyone via a worldwide vaccination scheme. Anti-vaxxers are behind this, and the FBI had to be called in to stop the death threats aimed at a New York nonprofit trying to fight poverty and disease in struggling countries.
For the really paranoid types who lean toward militaristic/geopolitical conspiracy theories, our current coronavirus was created by the Chinese in a lab as a bioweapon against the West, or (if you are a Chinese government rep) it was created by the US military and imported into China.
The list goes on. There is no COVID-19 (a holistic psychiatrist from Goop claims the rampant death is all in our heads); fatalities are being inflated by the Deep State (as per Trump supporters protesting at blue-state capitals with guns and anti-Dr. Fauci posters); and a video titled “Plandemic” is exploding online. It claims vaccine makers and the government started the COVID-19 pandemic to force people into getting vaccines for profit, and an innocent researcher was thrown into jail for telling us about this wickedness (I got three of these over Facebook Messenger).
The “Plandemic” video is especially dangerous because it is telling people not to get vaccinated, not to trust the scientists working furiously on this virus, not to protect their children. Maybe I’m biased, but I’m pretty darn thankful that Jonas Salk invented the polio vaccine and that the government made sure I was vaccinated as soon as it was available in 1955.
Let’s face it, folks. This is all getting a bit out of control, and it’s hurting friendships and family relations and spreading truth decay from sea to shining sea. If surprising or sensational claims hit your inbox or feed, the productive thing to do is find out what the real deal is before you pass along dangerous misinformation or lies (check Snopes or see if multiple professional media outlets also bear out the claim in question). Then confront the people promulgating this toxic stuff. If a dear friend is hitting “like” and sharing fantastic claims with you, push back gently. Real friends will thank you.