Warmer: What were your reactions when you first heard about the coronavirus COVID-19? How do you believe the disease started? When trying to find out more information about something that is of important significance, where do you go to find this out? Do you believe all the information given to you about COVID-19? How much do you believe the conspiracy theories that surround the disease?
Now read the text below, and then answer the questions that follow.
COVID-19 – how the internet has made this a conspiracy theory beyond all belief
Written by Roger Hartopp, compiled from numerous articles, September 2020
Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as we’ve all been on this planet, and they are very much a catch-all answer to any unexplained events of significance.
They are usually the result of circular logic, they cannot be proved wrong, and if you can’t prove it on one area, then it must be hiding in another. They are created by those individuals who are suspicious of authority, and thanks to the ubiquity and freedom of the internet, it has become so much easier to get their ideas across.
For many, conspiracy theories seemingly offer better explanations than the information they’ve been officially told by their governments, large organisations, and even respected individuals who are experts in their fields. And as a result, such theories thrive after horrific, threatening, or seemingly unexplainable events. Conspiracy leaders prey on and manipulate these individuals, claiming that they have successfully obtained secret knowledge, citing ‘credible’ references to and from websites, other ‘experts’, religious dogma, and even ‘hidden meanings’ in the Bible. And thanks to COVID-19 and the internet, some of these psychological features have become even more pronounced.
Published in May 2020, an online survey by Cambridge University Press of about 2,500 people in England found that while half didn’t engage in ‘conspiracy thinking’ about the coronavirus, there were about 25 percent that either showed a consistent pattern or ‘very high levels’ of endorsing those ideas. But that’s bound to happen when so many people get their news mainly from social media sources such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and so are more likely to believe conspiracy theories about the pandemic. And by adding uncertainty, fear, economic despair and misinformation campaigns from foreign governments (and/or leaders) that sow confusion, you have a group of people much more likely to ignore government or any other kind of official or sound advice on staying safe.
We’re all trying to make sense of the virus. But the internet is so full of unproven information, put up by and spread by anyone and everyone, that we get individuals often trying to pin the blame for this on other factors, their opinions particularly aimed at those who COVID-19 is fraught with fear, uncertainty, inconvenience, and threat. It is in times like these that we should be relying on science, medicine, and the legitimate media to make sense of and take individual action regarding the virus; unfortunately, there are many who believe that the internet has much better explanations…
5G’s electromagnetic spectrum has spread the disease. Poor 5G is getting it in the neck for many reasons by conspiracy theorists who believe that it is making people much sicker, but let’s make it clear: it is impossible for a virus to travel along mobile networks. Unfortunately many are pushing this conspiracy and have even been successful in getting the attention of the mainstream, and as a result many towers supporting mobile networks have been burnt down, creating life-threatening disruptions in emergency communication. The thing is, many of those towers didn’t even have 5G.
Bill Gates wants to implant a microchip in the world’s population. Now because of the money they make, Bill Gates and Microsoft have been easy targets for conspiracy theorists. But what sparked this particular theory off was the fact that back in 2015 Gates gave a TED talk on Ebola, and predicted that the world had to be more ready for another major pandemic. Discredited anti-vaxxers began suggesting that his talk implied he already knew about the virus or that he created it, and now he is pushing for a vaccine so that he (and Microsoft) can use this to implant a microchip in the world’s population, allowing he (and Microsoft) to control the world!
The virus escaped from a Chinese lab. Fuelled by Donald Trump (among others), this theory says that the virus was intentionally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology where it had been developed. Now while it is scientifically plausible that COVID-19 came from the wet markets of Wuhan (or even from other source locations), there is no evidence that the Wuhan Institute studied or developed COVID-19. Conspiracy theories have latched on to the fact that the Institute did study bats as carriers of other COVID viruses (SARS CoV-2) and therefore say these bats carried the virus to the lab. While bats may be a transspecies carrier, the bats from the institute were not COVID-19 carriers.
COVID-19 is a biological weapon. Another theory blamed on the Chinese, but this goes further and suggests they were ‘weaponizing’ the virus. A variant of the Chinese weaponing theory suggests that it was, in fact, the US military that imported the virus to China during the 2019 World Military Games that took place in Wuhan. While this idea certainly had some propaganda value in China, the idea that the US would kill its own people and others is apparently too fantastical even for most conspiracy theorists.
Genetically MOdified crops are the cause. This one is that supposedly GMO – genetically modified crops – produced a genetic pollution that allowed the virus to grow creating an environmental imbalance. However, COVID-19 does not transmit via plants; it is a virus transmitted across animal species who become part of the food supply. In this case, the transfer took place as the result of killing wildlife and using ancient, unsafe cooking methods.
COVID-19 is just flu or doesn’t exist. This one is popular for two reasons: one, it’s just another variation of flu that causes just as many deaths as other flu viruses have done in the past (as purported by the controversial leaders of Brazil and Belarus) and is no better or worse; second, it’s in fact a plot by some kind of world order to take away our freedoms and that it’s no different than the common flu. Many believe that COVID-19 has presented the opportunity to create a false response to the virus, leveraging, for example, social distancing for sinister political ends and loss of personal freedom.
COVID is a plot by Big Pharma. Yes, it’s BIG BUSINESS that’s been doing this, and is a theory that the anti-vaxxers love. Big business, in this case the major pharmaceutical companies, create a problem that they can fix, therefore producing incredible profits that would have never been realized without the virus. There is also the belief that scientific-based medicine is a big money conspiracy, and this has resulted in quack products advertised on the net, all claiming to be cures for the virus.
For certain individuals, these conspiracy theories serve not only to organize their world, locate blame, and to provide explanatory relief, but these same individuals can also be, inadvertently or otherwise, be responsible for violence, destruction of property and even death. Their theories detract from the real work ahead of trying to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, hard-working goals that are not conspiracy. But the fact the internet allows everyone and anyone to put forward unproven ideas and claim them as fact means we have a quarter of the population sceptical of much that is being done. And many of them cannot be, or will not be convinced otherwise, claiming that they are not being told the real truth of the disease.
Oh, and when I mean a quarter of the population, I’m talking of people who are from supposedly developed countries.
1. According to the text, what are the reasons for conspiracy theories?
2. Why do you think people believe conspiracy theories offer better explanations to certain situations?
3. According to an online survey, what percentage of people in England showed a high level of believing that there are conspiracy theories behind COVID-19?
4. Why do people believe the 5G mobile network is a cause?
5. What does Bill Gates supposedly want to do with the population of the world?
6. In what ways have the Chinese been blamed for COVID-19?
7. Why is it not possible for genetically modified crops to spread the disease?
8. Who believes that COVID-19 is just another form of flu and is no worse than other flu viruses?
9. Why do people think the large pharmaceutical companies are responsible?
10. According to the text, why do some people need conspiracy theories?
circular logic/reasoning – when the end of an argument comes back to the beginning without having proven itself. A logical argument suggests that A proves B. However, unlike a logical argument, B depends on A to be true, causing the statement to loop back around. Examples of circular logic are: Everyone loves Anna because she’s so popular. You must obey the law, because it's illegal to break the law.
to thrive – to do well and be successful, healthy, or strong, especially after being given some source of energy or encouragement. Don’t even try to convince him to change his mind – he thrives on a good argument.
to prey on and manipulate people – to take advantage or harm people in some way, usually those who are unable to protect themselves, after which they skilfully force or persuade them to do or believe in what they want. There are religious extremists who prey on and manipulate young minds.
to cite – to quote or mention something as an example or proof of what is being said. The main market square in the city centre was cited as the top tourist attraction in Krakow.
religious dogma – a disapproving term to describe a system of beliefs based on religion, and that those individuals are expected to accept that those beliefs put forward are true and not questioned. Religious dogma blinded them to the real needs of the country and its people.
to be more pronounced – here, when something is more noticeable, clear and even obvious. You can tell he’s been living in London for some time – his cockney accent has become more pronounced.
to engage in – to keep being interested in something and thinking about it. Quick – find someone else to talk to, I think he wants to engage us in conversation about his interest in motor bikes.
to endorse/endorsing – to publicly state that you support or approve of someone or something. A lot of people think that Brexit is a good thing, but it’s a view that I certainly don’t endorse.
to sow confusion – to cause an undesirable feeling or situation in the form of ideas that people don’t know what to believe or what they should do, particularly in those situations when people are not sure what to do, and these uncertainties begin and develop. They needed to sow confusion among the population in order to take over the country.
to be fraught with – a situation or action that is filled with problems or risks. Going on a trip to the Amazon forest is fraught with dangers.
threat – a danger of something unpleasant that might happen. A threat is also the cause of this danger. Some couples see single people as a threat to their relationships. Another pandemic could be a real threat to business.
5G – a stage in mobile phone technology (known as fifth generation, or 5G) when data can be provided more quickly than before and more devices can be supported in a smaller area. Why is 5G such a game changer? It will improve your network connection dramatically.
electromagnetic spectrum – the complete range of electromagnetic radiation according to frequency and wavelength, from the longest radio waves to the shortest. X-rays have dangerous frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum as they can damage living tissues.
getting it in the neck – to be told off for doing things that shouldn’t be done, to be reprimanded or punished severely. Poor Fred – he’s only been here for a week and he’s already been getting it in the neck three times for his work performance.
TED – Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks covering many topics. The most successful TED talks do not use PowerPoint presentations.
anti-vaxxer – a negative term to describe people who oppose vaccinations for various reasons, often by individuals who do not accept scientifically valid medical research favouring vaccines, instead preferring data produced by a discredited researcher. Diseases that were once believed to have disappeared are reappearing thanks to the anti-vaxxer movement.
wet markets of Wuhan – markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan where live and dead animals of different species were sold for human consumption, and is believed to be the source of COVID-19.
to latch on to – to understand, to attach to. He latched on to the fact that they were planning a robbery and so he called the police.
to purport – to claim to do or be that thing, although you may not always believe that claim. This new book purports to tell the whole truth about the president.
leveraging/to lever – the ability to influence situations or people so that you can control what happens. He may be the country’s president, but in reality he has little leverage in influencing government policy.
Big Pharma – a term used to describe pharmaceutical companies, especially the large publically-owned corporations. Big Pharma conspiracy theories claim that the large pharmaceutical companies operate for sinister purposes and against the public good, and that they supposedly cause and worsen a wide range of diseases so they can sell their medicines at high prices.
quack products – here, unproven medical ‘cures’ for illnesses that are sold by means of deception, or claiming to have qualities which have definitely not been proved. There are so many quack products sold over the internet.
inadvertently – to do something without realising what they have done. He inadvertently left the fridge door open.
detract from – when something makes something else seem less good or impressive. The scandal could detract from his re-election campaign for another four years as president.
sceptical of/about – when you have doubts about something, feel uncertain about it and do not know whether it is true or possible. There are many people who remain sceptical about Vladimir Putin’s motives in Europe.