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.