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    Conspiracy theories, Misinformation– and the Spread of the Infodemic

    There’s no shame in admitting that we love conspiracy theories. They make great dinner table conversation, and provide us with some drama or a chuckle that breaks the monotony of every day life. There’s no harm in relishing the idea of governments hiding alien space craft, or faking moon landings as long as you don’t go out and do anything too crazy.

    When those fun conspiracies start circulating while the world is already dealing with a pandemic, though, they can be very, very dangerous. In fact, we’re increasingly finding ourselves trapped in an ever-deepening “infodemic”, and nothing demonstrates that quite like the massive-scale sharing of a recent video filled to the brim with misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19.

    A pandemic of misinformation

    If you haven’t been living under a rock (although, it’s fair if you have been under the current circumstances) you’ll have heard of “Plandemic”.

    This work of pseudoscientific propaganda interviews a Dr Judy Mikovits – who was appropriately discredited for fraud and scientific misconduct – and has been seen and shared by millions of people around the world. It still is, in fact, despite some half-baked attempts by social media platforms to limit its reach.

    screengrab from Plandemic

    The faux-documentary, released on 4 May, presents a number of unsupported claims about COVID-19, theories of collusion by pharmaceutical companies, extravagant cover-ups, and other unsettling misinformation. Tara Haelle for Forbes described it as “a doozy, checking nearly every box in the long list of conspiracy theories and disinformation circulating about the coronavirus”.

    Writing about the film for The Guardian, Jason Wilson said that the claims made by Mikovits in her interview “played directly into established anti-vaxxer beliefs, which have become integrated into broader, conspiracy-minded, mostly right-wing anti-lockdown narratives.” These claims include, among others, the notion that the virus was man-made, that mandatory vaccination is a plot by big pharma that will kill millions; and that that public health authorities are evil, corrupt and untrustworthy.

    “There is no evidence for any of this,” says Wilson “as many outlets have shown. In some cases, as with the claim about bioengineering, the best science indicates the opposite to be true.”

    Anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists (and just generally inconsiderate people) all over the world have been breaking lockdown regulations in order to protest the rules put in place to limit the spread of the virus. This is particularly prevalent in the USA where the epidemic is severe, federal response has been poor, and healthcare comes hand in hand with inequality and social tensions. This documentary, of course, bolstered many of their arguments – which were never based on science to begin with.

    And yet, intelligent and well-meaning people are circulating this absurd conspiracy theory video all across the globe, continuing the vicious cycle. Why?

    Why did my intelligent friend share “Plandemic”?

    When it comes to coronavirus, Plandemic is just one of many conspiracy videos out there. It just so happens that this particular package of disinformation spread a lot better than the others – and there are a number of reasons for this, many of which were intentional.

    According to Professor Utpal Dholakia at Rice University in Houston, Texas, not only did this particular video endorse sentiments that are already believed by many, but it did so in an ostensibly authentic manner. “The video comes across as authentic to a large number of initial viewers,” he writes, “and as marketers know all too well, perceptions of authenticity lead to engagement and sharing.”

    Secondly, according to Dholakia, the story is compelling. It has ups and downs, heroes and villains and a well-crafted narrative, designed to hook viewers from the start. Furthermore, that narrative is structured in a way that elicits a strong emotional response– and a negative one. “Over decades of research,” writes Dholakia, “communications psychologists have found that arousing intense negative emotions, particularly fear, is a powerful way to engage the viewer. Emotionally intense, physiologically arousing content is also more likely to go viral“.

    According to Haelle, many people have probably been sharing the video because they found it interesting, and not necessarily because they believe its claims. Others really do believe its claims because of its slick production and the sudden rush of (convincing) fear it invokes in them. Not to mention the fact that it mimics the documentary style that we’ve all come to associate with factual information.

    “The people producing this video know what they’re doing, and they’re very good at it,” says Haelle. “On a subconscious level, no matter what words are being said, this video feels factual simply because of how it was produced. It’s intentionally manipulative. It’s a textbook example of effective propaganda.”

    The fact that Plandemic was so aggressively removed from social media platforms once it started making waves, may have further intrigued the public and resulted in it getting even more hits. In fact, Ethan Porter and Thomas J. Wood at Wired believe that Facebook’s reticence about fact checking viral pandemic-related content like this stems from exactly that backlash effect.

    “Facebook worries that the mere act of trying to debunk a bogus claim may only help to make the lie grow stronger,” they write. Allegedly, the same theory accounted for the fact that Facebook stopped applying “red-flag” warnings to false headlines. They quote a Facebook production manager who said that “academic research on correcting misinformation” showed that warnings like this “may actually entrench deeply held beliefs”.

    But there are arguments that suggest that none of this has been proven by contemporary data. According to Porter and Wood,  “it’s a bogeyman—a zombie theory from the research literature circa 2008 that has all but been abandoned since. More recent studies, encompassing a broad array of issues, find the opposite is true”.

    Facebook, then, could be accused of being overly lax in its attempts to curb the spread misinformation and disninformation about the coronavirus outbreak. So lax, in fact, that their platform actually serves to help those who are spreading it to the point where videos like Plandemic are able to be seen and shared millions of times before this discussion – the one we’re having now– happens.

    Why are people drawn to conspiracy?

    None of this is new to us. Conspiracy theories pull us in. They get us emotionally invested. Not to mention, believing we’re privy to any kind of forbidden knowledge makes us feel like we have some control– and that’s especially valuable stuff in a period of massive uncertainty.

    “People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent told the New York Times. These include having a command of facts, and a sense of autonomy over one’s well-being.

    “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said. This can often help the believer feel a lot more secure and safe in uncertain times.

    Believing, and sharing, conspiracies may also help us feel less alone. It creates communities of belief that rally around fictions, and welcome new members with open arms. Who doesn’t want the comfort of a warm and welcoming community at a time when we’re not allowed to see our friends and family? Now more than ever, the rise of conspiracy is predictable, and easy to understand, but that doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye.

    Why do we need to know this?

    According to the UN department of global communications, “Infodemics can hamper an effective public health response and create confusion and distrust among people”. This is highly problematic at a time when the whole world really needs to stand together. It doesn’t help that certain world leaders are actively endorsing many baseless theories which then lead to people to do loopy things – like drink disinfectants.

    “Conspiracy theories like those in this video are actively, directly harmful and dangerous,” emphasises Haelle. “They can influence people’s behaviour in ways that harm those people and public health—including you personally—in general. We can’t afford to let these ideas run unchecked.”

    If you want to know how to go about dealing with people on your facebook who share this kind of content– or need more convincing that you should be acting against it– Haelle has some tips about how to do that, and I highly recommend you give them a read.

    We’ve dealt with pandemics before, but never have we also been so globally connected. If we as the consumers of media don’t push back against the stream of propaganda and misinformation, we’re enabling it and as a result, doing a disservice to everyone on our social media. We need to do this, because the social media platforms themselves are, clearly, not doing enough. Without our individual responses, this infodemic will continue to spread just as quickly as the virus itself – and really, we have enough on our plate without having to deal with that too.

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