Joyce Fegan: Covid is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracies

Scratch below the historical surface of conspiracy theories and you'll find they have always been used to create a radicalising pathway by far right movements globally
Joyce Fegan: Covid is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracies

The doctors and nurses will be working overtime this Christmas making sure the rest of us stay alive. Their only job is to keep us safe, and they don't even need our vote,.

Up until now, the job of the Government has been, for the most part, to keep the madding crowd happy.

Keep enough of them happy and you’ll reach the quota in your constituency on election day — what everyone else thinks or says about you becomes irrelevant, if your skin is suitably thick.

Bring a pandemic and public health into the political mix, and politicians’ popularity now resides in not just keeping the public happy, but also safe.

This week, as the numbers did their thing, and hours got chopped off nightlife’s opening hours, the public roar was palpable.

Business owners worried: “What’s next?” Lobby groups with vested interests, of which public health is not one, got vocal in the blame game.

The thoughts of ordinary Joe Soaps went to Christmas. One severely restricted Christmas of just two households, with no foreign travel, was enough for one lifetime. “Can’t do that again,” went the public exclaim. People have been booking pantos, Santa visits, and afternoon teas since September.

There was also the public criticism about the slow rollout of the vaccine booster programme, and then there was the wild west of disinformation that is social media.

On the tame side of things, we had 2FM DJ Carl Mullan serving us up comic videos of much-needed light relief — depicting the despair of a worn-out nation. Mullan nailed the nation’s mood.

Then there were the circulating conspiracy theories originating from people acting as pseudo-scientists or activists to their thousands and thousands of followers.

Those followers in their worn-out-ness and daily diet of memes and reels and the pithy picture quotes of the ‘Gram, suck it all up, mobilised by the idea that there is something larger, and darker, at play here, a semi-believed thought that they’re getting played.

“Cui bono? — Who benefits?” is a common refrain of those who spout conspiracies. Their followers, in turn, parrot the phrase.

There is nothing new about conspiracy theories. The only thing that’s new is that the ongoing saga of Covid proves a fertile breeding ground for them.

But scratch below the historical surface of conspiracy theories and you’ll find they have always been used to create a radicalising pathway by far-right movements globally.

Put simply, there are people making lots of money and gaining lots and lots of followers, building a sizeable audience you could say, by spinning dissenting yarns about all things Covid. So who’s benefiting now?

These kinds of folk are called 'internet grifters' in some circles. They’re making money off people’s vulnerability, despair, and worry. They are not politicians, and therefore have no public accountability. They are not publishers or broadcasters, and therefore are in no way accountable to defamation laws or press councils.

Social media companies are their overlords, and last I checked, we’re still waiting on robust regulation there.

These grifters knowingly spread false information around the wild west that is the internet. They create a tribe-like sense of “us” versus “them”. Their audience absorbs the unverified information, unaware of both its origins and intent.

Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick and the author of the 2019 book Conspiracy Theories, argues that much literature on conspiracy theories misses some fairly obvious points — namely that these theories are a form of propaganda. 

He gave a public lecture in Ireland on conspiracy theories as part of a UCD initiative this year. In it he outlined several major conspiracy theories in the world today:

  • The Great Replacement (the conspiracy theory that immigrants coming to Europe will replace white Christians);
  • Soros’ Migrant Caravan (a conspiracy theory that billionaire George Soros funded migrants’ journeys into the US);
  • QAnon (a group of conspiracy theories aimed at the “liberal elite” in America);
  • Sandy Hook (a conspiracy theory that the 2012 fatal school shooting in America did not happen);
  • Moon landing (a conspiracy theory that the 1969 moon landing was a Nasa hoax)

“Ask yourself  —what is the political agenda of each of these conspiracy theories?” said the professor.

The Great Replacement and the Soros Migrant Caravan are anti-immigrant. QAnon is anti-Democrat. Sandy Hook was started in opposition to stricter gun control in America. And the moon landing is anti-State.

“Each of these theories have a political agenda,” said Prof Cassam. 

They don’t just have political consequences or significance — they are,in essence, forms of political or ideological propaganda. This is their core function."

And now we have Covid and the vast array of deliberate disinformation that comes with it. It is so easy to dismiss friends and family who may repeat these theories, but the real job is to follow the money and the IP address that these stories emanate from.

The UN has called this disinformation campaign that has been running alongside the pandemic an "infodemic".

In the UK, new research from Cambridge University showed a significant percentage of people believing in conspiracy theories.

Approximately 50% of this population [2,501 people surveyed] showed little evidence of conspiracy thinking, 25% showed a degree of endorsement, 15% showed a consistent pattern of endorsement, and 10% had very high levels of endorsement,” reads the research paper.

We used to just get our news from printed papers, the wireless, and then through television. What we read was in hard copy, held in our hands, as a child played beside you or a family member cooked the dinner.

What we listened to or watched was done in unison or in a shared space like an office or a sitting room. It was not consumed in digital isolation or in a virtual vacuum, absent of accountability. 

If we were particularly riled up, we could write to the editor if we found ourselves aggrieved by an article. We could phone into a radio show — many still do — or we could complain to the likes of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Do we ever feel offended or aggrieved by a post we see on social media and want to hold its anonymous creator, or your friend that has shared it, to account?

When we receive a falsehood via the closed network of WhatsApp, there’s no Joe Duffy to phone or editor to write to. This is where these falsehoods breed and thrive and spread, unchecked — their creators unaccountable.

Politicians are fallible. Some, over the years, have proven their intentions to be ambiguous. 

Healthy scepticism, in general, is about right. But cynicism is a get-out-a-jail free card where “everyone and everything is wrong, but I am absolved of providing solutions or action or care”. Cynicism and conspiracies leave all work undone, untended to.

As the madding crowd goes at it in WhatsApp groups and on social media — giving out about politicians and scientists alike — the doctors and nurses will be working overtime this Christmas making sure the rest of us stay alive. Their only job is to keep us safe, and they don’t even need our vote.

In the age of disinformation, we need to think twice about our source of information. Is there a name attached? Who’s accountable if it’s inaccurate? Do they have people’s wellbeing at heart? 

And what’s the consequence to me sharing it, if I’m not sure of any of the latter?

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