I decided to write this blog update after weeks of concern about the tsunami of misinformation that permeates social media and many private conversations during this time of Coronavirus.
When I was in my 20s and 30s I was obsessed with conspiracy theories. As a student of history and a writer I was fascinated with how people could take a small sliver of fact or opinion and develop a whole universe around it, but unlike an author, not know it was fiction. As an author, I love it when one of my off-the-wall hypotheses can be supported by a correlation or gap in history. It is exciting to be able to build a whole world, characters and events within that gap.
But here is the thing: I know it is fantasy, I know it is fiction. I don't conflate my wishes for neat explanations and fanciful, adventurous narratives with the reality. What I learned studying conspiracy theories for over 20 years is that they are seductive, because quite frankly they are more interesting than real life. They allow us to believe that we aren't responsible for the failures in our lives, that it is somebody else's fault, and excuses us from participating in the civic project of advancing our society.
A conspiracy theory is also extremely attractive, because like the mythologies created by cult leaders, a select few of us can become the hero in our stories, because we are privy to secrete knowledge, only given to the elect. Sheeple won't get it, sheeple will refute the evidence that you find so convincing. Sheeple will counter your experts with their experts who are just part of the conspiracy. This circular argument is a bit like the fundamentalist religious argument about faith. Faith can't be argued with, because to argue with it is an act of apostasy. If we ask for proof we are not faithful, not one of the chosen and we will no longer be special, but instead are the handmaidens of the devil.
The 5G Coronavirus conspiracy is a distressing case in point. The current meme's circulating have led to the destruction of property and the threatening of anybody who looks like they are working on 5G infrastructure. Let's be clear, 5G cannot penetrate living cells. It cannot change the genetic make-up of any cell because its part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is too weak to enter the cell, has been shown to be safe and has been used in a range of telecommunications products for decades. It is not that different to 4G, which most of you are using to read this blog. I would also like to note that your home microwave, stove-top, oven and television most likely emit more radiation in your home than any 5G emitter could ever do.*
Likewise with Australia's new Coronavirus tracking app. If you use facebook, messenger, What'sApp, google maps, Amazon Prime, Outlook mail, zoom, or use a search-engine you have already given away an enormous amount of information, and it has already been hacked, sold or used to advertise products to you online. You have also already given away information that could be handed over under a subpoena to the Australian, US or other government if they suspect you may have participated in terrorist or other criminal activity. The Australian Government has made a commitment that this will not happen with any contact information you voluntarily provide to the government, should you test positive for Covid-19.
The Australian Coronavirus app is designed to allow us to get back to our lives in a coordinated way, so that should an outbreak happen, contact tracking can be facilitated more quickly. It is not tracking your movements, just your contacts if, and only if, you have downloaded the app and have it running in the background, you have come in contact for 15 minutes or more with someone who then tests positive for Covid-19, you are then contacted by someone from the Health Department and informed you have been in contact with that person, you then decide to upload the data, which up to that point has been stored on your phone. Furthermore, you can delete the app at any time.
What is the point of a conspiracy in the first place? A conspiracy can be the product of imagination by someone who, to make themselves feel more important, becomes the centre of everything that is happening. This is a form of magical thinking that most people grow out of by 11 or 12 years of age. For instance thinking the Coronavirus App has been specifically designed to trap you. As a person who suffered considerable abuse as a child it took me a bit longer to grow out of this mode of thinking. I also have a good imagination, so I tend to connect the dots in creative ways. Fortunately, at this point in my life, I am mentally robust enough to be able to tell the difference.
This study of conspiracies has led me to understand that, unlike the person who seeks to be the centre of the universe and engage in conspiracy theories, the originators of many of these conspiracies aren't so innocent, and don't believe the conspiracies themselves. They use conspiracies as tools to further their own greed and lust for power. Many conspiracies are used by convincing salesmen to push a product, course, book or course to help you 'see the truth' and you sign-up because you want to understand what is going on, to be able to look behind the veil of world history. They rely on 'confirmation bias' - the concept that people like to believe things that advance their existing belief system. Therefore it is easier to convince an anti-vaccination adherent that 5G is dangerous, because it confirms to their basic distrust of science, despite the originator of the anti-vaccination movement admitting his study was fraudulent, retracting it publicly and numerous subsequent studies showing no relationship between vaccines and autism.*** The originators of these conspiracies make money through product sales, advertising, subscribers, tours etcetera and they have discovered that on YouTube the more ridiculous and outrageous the claim, the more views and followers you get. This has led us to believe things that a decade ago we simply would not have fallen for en masse. The viral nature of social media means that many of these narratives get thousands of times more traction than they would before social media.
Furthermore, stay home orders are not like Hitler's pre-war Germany. I have a Masters in International Relations, my dissertation was on genocide, and I am appalled by those trying to conflate the two, without any basis in fact. Hitler's policies were justified by a fraud - known at that time as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion conspiracy, that had circulated and been elaborated upon since publication in Russia in 1903, as if it had existed since the end of the 19th Century. This conspiracy said that a group of Zionist elders met regularly and created a plan to manipulate world affairs, subvert the media, orchestrate the Great War (and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles) to extract all of Germany's wealth and push the world into the Great Depression. The supposed group (which has been proven to never have existed) has since been said to be responsible for the disappearance of non-Jewish children, the abduction, enslavement and sacrifice of non-Jewish women, the hoarding of wealth with the aim of all humanity being tattooed with the number of the beast. This fraudulent 'Protocols' document was published by both Henry Ford and Nazis and the supposed conspiracy led to hatred of all Jews as members of this imaginary group and justified unimaginable atrocities throughout the world against anyone of Jewish ancestry. It saw this action as pre-emptive and necessary because the conspiracy 'proved' that the Elders of Zion would eventually enslave all non-Jews and bring about a New World Order where non-Jews would be persecuted. The holocaust was seen as a solution to this 'threat' and a way to get back all the hoarded wealth the conspiracy pushers said these Jews had amassed. To be clear, the conspiracy was based on a complete fraud, it was a dangerous fallacy that people fell for and acted upon during a time of great financial stress and societal breakdown. It was ascribed to by the followers of Hitler, Stalin and even many people in Britain and the US in the lead up to the World War 2, and influenced world events for almost 60 years.**
So does anybody else benefit when we believe in conspiracy theories? Yes, if conspiracy theories fracture and divide society then they assist those who wish to undermine social cohesion, civil order and functioning society, they undermine government and democracy by causing us to question everything without using critical thinking. Questioning everything doesn't equate to critical thinking. Critical thinking asks us to check the sources of information, validate those sources are what they say they are and look for other witnesses or collaborating evidence or references that can also be validated to ensure the information is not just a viewpoint or a fraud. Most people don't track through the claims on a YouTube video to its sources. As long as other conspiracy theorists support it, they feel that the information is validated. They often don't look at the financial incentive, sometimes millions of dollars, for people to jump on the bandwagon.
For example, considering the opinion of an engineer to be superior to the life-time research of a meteorologist when reviewing information about climate change, is not smart, it's not intelligent, it doesn't make you clever. It just means you don't understand that a lifetime working as an engineer is very different to a lifetime working in meteorology. It would be like saying that a Year 12 English Teacher is qualified to teach University mathematics, because at some point in their life they did some mathematics, or vice versa.
The organisations that want you to ascribe to conspiracy theories are many and varied, and can come from both ends of the ideological spectrum. In the context of Coronavirus, I can tell you they are groups that want to control the agenda and prevent governments from functioning, to force us back to work so nothing changes, so the wheels of commerce keep turning and we don't have time to realise the possibilities created by innovative solutions, like universal basic income. They are the mining magnates, the media barons that want us to keep working with our heads down as our rights are eroded. They are the ideological organisations that want you to keep donating to their religion, their philosophy, their political ideology so they can keep existing and pumping out their destructive memes. They are the polluters that don't want you to notice that nature is doing better when humans stop their normal routines for a while; they don't want you to see that what we all do does matter and can make a difference. They suggest that the economy is something separate to the production of people and that sacrificing the old and vulnerable is acceptable. They suggest that to save the economy we must sacrifice some people.
Where they are applied, the stay home orders are for our own safety and are the only proven strategy in the history of pandemics, dating back to the dark ages and used most recently en masse during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1919. They are still effective today. If better strategies arise, believe me, they will be applied. Fearing that you are being victimised because you have been asked to shelter-in-place or stay at home and social distance, ignores the sacrifice previous generations have made to keep future generations safe. Yes, it is tough mentally, yes it is tough financially, but the alternative is far worse. The stories from Northern Italy, Spain the UK and New York are heart-breaking. Developed societies pride themselves on valuing every life, but it seems this is only as long as it doesn't require much discomfort or come at economic cost.
We will get through this if we come together and support each other, because I suspect this will be only the first of a series of shocks we will experience this decade. Living on the South Coast of Australia, this is our second shock for the year. The first was the ravaging fires over summer that reduced many of our homes and forests to ashes. We came together as a community to survive the fires, and we have brought that same mentality into the Coronavirus crisis. The recovery will ask much of us, to work together, to go without things we have taken for granted, to work in different ways, to think more flexibly, to find ways to keep active and keep our spirits up, to be agile in our businesses to stay afloat, and to financially support those whose place in society is precarious due to the casual nature of their work. Those that do will come out of this better than they went in, richer for having survived and done their part, healthier for having found the balance between work and home, and it will be up to us to help those who have had to carry more of the burden. Our society will similarly become richer, more sustainable and agile and we will understand that a resort to conspiracy theory does not serve us.
*Comprehensive study into effects of 5G technology
**The Elders of Zion conspiracy
***Vaccine conspiracy debunked