Take a spin around the internet and you might “learn” that the coronavirus is a plot hatched by Bill Gates to benefit pharmaceutical companies.
Or you might be told that the pandemic is part of a “deep state” effort to undermine President Donald Trump. Or that the sickness is spread by 5G wireless technology.
It’s all ridiculous, really.
I mean, anyone who’s done a little research knows the coronavirus was hatched in an Easy-Bake Oven by mud wrestlers in Lake Placid. Once you see the facts laid out succinctly on a sketchy website, there’s just no denying the truth.
Well, in any event, the coronavirus pandemic is showing, once again, the human tendency to explain away a frightening world with conspiracies theories. There’s nothing new about that, of course.
Our belief in shadowy forces probably goes back to our earliest days, when we were out roaming around the savanna and worried about forceful lions lurking in the shadows.
What’s unique are the conditions now contributing to the rapid spread of conspiracies about the pandemic. Many of us are confined to our homes, with the internet providing a vital link to the outside word. We’re staring at screens while worried about the future and confused about the present.
So, on dark corners of the internet, such as Facebook, dubious rumors spread like wildfire.
Some, such as a claim the virus came from people eating bat soup, sound immediately nutty and are easy to laugh away. Others, like the claim that children can’t get COVID-19, sound more plausible but are just as false and do much more harm.
Why do even the most elaborate conspiracy theories flourish? I put the question to Richard Lachmann, a sociology professor at the University at Albany.
One of the more obvious reasons, he said, is that many of us are looking to impose some semblance of order on a chaotic world. For some of us, a cabal of human villains is easier to fathom than a nebulous virus.
Another reason is that we, understandably, want to feel in control of our lives as we feel we’re being tossed about by unknowable forces. We don’t feel in control of our destinies. We feel powerless, in other words.
“But if we believe there’s this secret knowledge we have and others don’t, it turns it all around,” Lachmann said. “Suddenly, we’re the people who have the knowledge and the understanding, so we have a feeling of power.”
Let’s pause to note that there’s nothing wrong with a good dose of healthy skepticism toward authority and established wisdom. In fact, skepticism toward authority is a virtue as American as fried food and NASCAR. It’s why we overthrew a king and invented rock ‘n’ roll.
Meanwhile, if conspiracies flourish in part because Americans have lost faith in churches, governments or the anchor who sits in Walter Cronkite’s old chair, I get it. Many of our once-trusted institutions have eroded their moral authority with corruption, incompetence or indifference to the plight of the Americans who live in unglamorous places.
Those failures are right out in the open, no conspiracy required. Still, our institutions, the news media included, are institutions for a reason. For all their flaws, they’re the most trustworthy voices we have.
What’s confounding is how many people disbelieve claims by established authorities or, in the case of the coronavirus, medical professionals, yet abandon all disbelief when confronted by an unsourced theory posted by a teenage insomniac or a Russian bot. It makes no sense to be skeptical of one while swallowing the claims of the other.
As Lachmann noted, many conspiracies _ including the one about 5G towers spreading the coronavirus _ are impossible plots more elaborate than reality and would, if true, depend on thousands of insiders to keep the secret. Since humans are notorious gossips, that should reveal the theories as preposterous.
Nevertheless, people fall for them, no matter how cockamamie, and the consequences are real. In Britain, for example, frightened citizens have been torching cell towers. Around the world, conspiracy theories may also be helping the coronavirus spread.
“If people believe they’re getting the virus from their phones,” Lachmann said, “they’re not going to wear masks and stay 6 feet away from other people.”
This column is probably pointless, because the people who most believe in conspiracy theories are unlikely to be convinced by a newspaper. “Lamestream media! Fake news!” they’ll declare. “He’s in on it! So is the professor!”
Believe it or not, I’ve met people who believe I must be helping to hide some conspiracy or another. Sometimes they suggest, with a knowing nod, that I would probably like to write the truth if only my nefarious bosses wouldn’t quash it.
I should tell them about the mud wrestlers up in Lake Placid.