The go-to tool for puncturing outlandish conspiracy theories is Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest explanation for something is also the most likely to be true.
For example, maybe Canadian pop star Avril Lavigne’s departure from her trademark tomboyish look is evidence that she died in 2002 and was replaced by a clone, as some fans claim. Or maybe she’d just had enough of sweatbands and baggy jeans. As Lavigne herself once sang, inadvertently paraphrasing William of Occam’s rule, “why do you have to go and make things so complicated?”.
While Occam’s razor is a useful rebuttal to conspiracy theories, it also helps explain why they bubble up in the first place: some events are so discombobulating that they defy obvious or easy explanation. And for many, it is more comforting to see order and design, however sinister, in traumatising events than to admit the fragility of a system in which presidents can be assassinated by one lunatic with a gun, or thousands can be murdered by religious fanatics flying planes into New York skyscrapers.
So it is with the coronavirus. To accept the ghastly truth about the pandemic is to acknowledge that a microscopic development in Wuhan — a fatal viral leap from bat to human — has brought life as we know it to a halt and means hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will die. It is a terrifying thought, and a difficult truth to accept. No wonder there has been an explosion of conspiracy theories.
These include the idea that the illness is caused by 5G — which has prompted dozens of arson attacks on cell towers in the UK; the notion that Bill Gates invented the virus to control the world using his vaccines, and the idea that the whole thing is a media concoction – a fact supposedly demonstrated by footage of empty hospital carparks fearlessly collected by the Covid truthers.
Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long to find hucksters on the internet pushing bogus cures and vaccines. WhatsApp is a digital rumour mill rife with insider accounts of what is really going on inside the hospitals and top secret details of the next stage of the government shutdown.
First things first: all of this is nonsense. Follow the advice of the public health authorities where you live, stick to credible sources, listen to your doctor, ignore the online quacks and cranks.
With that health warning out of the way, there are some aspects of the great deluge of conspiratorial thinking prompted by the pandemic worth considering.
The first is that no amount of Facebook moderation, YouTube video removal or Google search health warnings appears to be stopping the spread of conspiracy theories or flattening the fake news curve. Big tech is dealing with the pandemic the way many have called on them to treat a wide range of issues for years, with proactive, stringent intervention in online speech. Facebook has rolled out AI moderation so strict that it has blocked numerous perfectly legitimate, mainstream news posts.
In spite of all these interventions, the tinfoil hat brigade head to their nearest 5G mast, lighter fluid in hand, and ITV’s Eamonn Holmes gets himself in trouble with some ill-judged remarks about the powers that be. Is that any surprise? After all, conspiracy theorists are generally aware that mainstream sources of information, or gatekeepers like tech firms, would dispute their version of events. Indeed, that is often the point. There are undoubted downsides to the strict policing of online speech, but perhaps, once the dust settles, coronavirus will have demonstrated that the upsides are more limited than many have claimed.
The web may give us the transparency to see conspiratorial thinking and misinformation in all its gory detail, and modern communication technology may hasten their spread, but we should not kid ourselves that they are anything new.
Here, the history of pestilence is instructive. As Richard Evans reminds readers of the New Statesman, pandemic fake news goes back centuries. During the Black Death, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. Many were killed, including several hundred who were burned in Strasbourg. “In 1899,” he writes, “an outbreak of bubonic plague in Honolulu, though limited, led to attacks by an outraged mob on the Chinese quarter, which was burned to the ground.”
While enthusiastic moderation doesn’t appear to be reducing the appeal of obviously unhinged thinking on Covid-19, the pitfalls of stringent policing of the line between real and fake news, acceptable theorising and unacceptable crankery is made clear in a few borderline cases.
In February, Tom Cotton, a prominent Republican Senator and China hawk, was widely criticised for pointing out that Wuhan is home to a biosaftey level four laboratory where scientists research coronavirus. “We don’t have evidence that the disease originated there, but because of China’s duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” he told Fox News. The New York Times accused Cotton of pushing a “fringe theory”. “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked” read a Washington Post headline in mid-February. A few weeks later, however, Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that “scientists don’t rule out that an accident at a research laboratory in Wuhan might have spread a deadly bat virus they had been collecting for scientific study”.
This week, another Post columnist, Josh Rogin, reported that two years ago US Embassy officials “visited a Chinese research facility and sent two official warnings back to Washington about inadequate safety at a the lab, which was conducting risky studies on coronaviruses from bats.” The story prompted Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley to call evidence that the coronavirus originated at a Chinese lab “inconclusive”. The one in three Americans who think that Covid-19 was made in a lab may well be mistaken, but the idea that a naturally occurring virus escaped a Chinese laboratory, rather than Wuhan’s wet market, hardly seems like a dangerous fringe idea, and at least a possibility.