RICHARD HIL. Covid-19 and the conspiracy theory freight train

It didn’t take long, did it? Yes; it’s off and running – the Covid-19 freight train of conspiracy theories.

I don’t know about you, but I find many of these assumption-busting, adrenalin-charged forays down endless rabbit holes rather irritating, occasionally intriguing, but more often, very dangerous. For all their manifest failings, some conspiracy theories at least offer us a sense of fleeting curiosity; they take us away from those smug, settled positions which many, like me, hang on to for dear life. Whilst we may not all be Pravda types, we’re also not all that easily knocked off our perches of certainty; however critical we claim to be.

Conspiracy theories tend to find their epistemic treasures in the quarries of speculation – hunches, intuition and circumstantial guesswork. They’re colourful, fascinating and invariably bizarre, sometimes bordering on the certifiable.

The latest crop of Covid-19 conspiracy theories is as creative as it is outlandish. They include a range of florid assertions: namely, that the Covid-19 pandemic is:

  • A ghastly plot concocted by the CIA or US military through its biological warfare program to wipe out the entire Chinese population, or certain sections thereof – most likely the Central Politburo of the Communist Party.
  • A terrible accident in which a drunken CIA operative fell off a high stool in a Wuhan bar, causing him to shatter a vile of Covid-19 that was intended for release in Iran.
  • An elaborate cover for what is a global financial meltdown, thereby avoiding attributing blame to the usual suspects.
  • A virus exported around the world so that the People’s Republic of China can become economic masters of the universe.
  • A virus released by the Chinese government in order to deliberately kill off the country’s elderly population, thereby significantly reducing pension costs in that country.

Now, let’s for one moment entertain these theories. If true, some of them are not only suggesting epic acts of callousness/madness/idiocy but also – and here’s the rub – a deliberate or unintended act of mass suicide in order to achieve some, not entirely obvious, higher purpose.

But who, according to the purveyors of such nonsense, are the evil planners behind such dastardly deeds? Well, we’re never really told, but they seem to be imagined – perhaps in the vein of Dr Strangelove – as middle-aged patriarchs with bulging eyes and disconnected neurons. Each appears to be obsessed with world domination and collectively, they seem able to pull various financial and political strings, as skilfully as any puppet master.

The folk who report on such clandestine figures are an interesting lot. They’re usually found in the most reclusive corners of the dark web or more than occasionally in full view on YouTube. The self-choreographed reportage is delivered by humourless blokes (women are notably absent in this area), some with elaborate comb-overs and others with bandanas constraining long, straggly hair.

Ensconced in dungeon-like studios, these chroniclers of the deep deliver “truly shocking” assertions in the most dulcet of tones, suggesting a sense of gravitas anchored in uncontested truth. Dots are joined and inferences drawn in story lines that often beggar belief which, of course, is even more reason to believe them.

Their sources are rich and varied, including articles and “academic” papers authored by self-appointed experts and obsessive nit-pickers who claim to have stumbled across egregious factual errors. The discovery of the latter often leads to howls of joy, having apparently pulled the one domino that sends the entire establishment crashing down. It’s fun because these amateur sleuths have ventured into fields they know little about, but with a joyful determination to expose dark secrets, corruption and malevolence. It’s cerebral paintball via a keyboard.

One thing’s for sure though: these late-night private detectives are no shrinking violets. They promote conspiracy theories with ferocious intent and will eviscerate opponents naive enough to offer an alternative point of view. They often round on public figures, trashing reputations through a toxic mix of inuendo, guilt-by-association and hearsay. At their very worst, conspiracy theorists round on entire populations, seeing them as responsible for all societal ills or as corruptors of morals and civilization itself. This of course, can lead to some very violent outcomes, especially when appropriated by psychologically disturbed loners.

If you detect a hint of self-absorption bordering on the narcissistic among such individuals, you’d be right. They produce long, paranoid, impermeable screeds otherwise referred to as manifestoes – vapid texts infused with victimhood and hatred. They’re intent on making you feel like an idiot; having exposed truths to which, apparently, only they or a few others have access. A key tactic in these discursive assaults is to befuddle and confuse by raising ceaseless unanswered and unanswerable questions. Once you think you’ve dispatched one claim, another soon arises. That’s the point: to sow doubt, to confuse, to undermine and reformulate received wisdoms.

But every so often these folks do hit the mark, right? Yes, of course, but it’s a bit like the monkey and typewriter: they’re bound to hit the right key at some point. There are times when tangible evidence supersedes guesswork, and that’s when conspiracy theories can have some value. After all, we can agree, I think, that the official account of 9/11 is suspect. But if we’re to assert, following this, that Mossad or the CIA or reptilians from outer space orchestrated this tragedy, then some concrete evidence would help.

The thing is, we do need some sort of verification, some tangible proof, even if it’s in an abstract form. As philosopher Julian Baggini points out in A Short History of Truth, we also need to pass the evidentiary test of reasonableness. Is it reasonable, for instance, to assert that a reincarnation of Frank Zappa or Mao Tse-Tung planned 9/11? Recently, an acquaintance of mine screamed into my face asking why I found it “so very hard” to believe her latest theory (which was that the Australian bushfires were started by some nefarious agents in order to clear land for mining). When I asked for some skeletal evidence, gasps of exasperation followed.

On another occasion, a café dweller informed me that all the assertions about President Putin being a ruthless autocrat who occasionally knocks off journalists or imprisons political opponents was in fact US propaganda. When I drew this person’s attention to the “fact” that the two Russian agents responsible for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the small English town of Salisbury were caught on CCTV, I was called an apologist for the CIA.

The logic here is simple: defend your original argument at all costs, reinterpret the “evidence” to suit the prevailing story, and ridicule doubters. What I’ve learned from my many encounters with conspiracy theorists is that it’s impossible to pin them down. There’s no evidence that can dissuade them. So, as academic philosopher, Quassim Cassam, argues in Conspiracy Theories, a more effective tactic may be to expose the company they keep.

So, let’s take climate change deniers. You can spend the rest of your short life trying to address their liquid assertions. Instead, you may want to point out that the vast majority of worlds’ climate scientists, who spend many years doing the hard-analytical yards, tend to support the anthropogenic thesis, and that only a few think otherwise, ably supported by the likes of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Tony Abbott and Lord Monkton. Don’t expect this to get you very far – you’ll be accused of cynicism and ignorance.

But then again, reptilians from the planet Zog would say that, wouldn’t they?

Adjunct Professor Richard Hil, School of Social Work and Human Services ,Griffith University, Gold Coast

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