How should we tackle conspiracy theories about Covid-19?

Back in 1890, the European edition of the New York Herald reported that the new-fangled electric light might be responsible for a global influenza outbreak. After all, “the disease has raged chiefly in towns where the electric light is in common use,” it said, and went on to note that the disease “has everywhere attacked telegraph employees.”

Not so different from today, except that these speculations would appear on YouTube and Facebook.

People have an existential need for both truth and safety, so it’s not surprising that uncertainty is fostering a wide and wild variety of theories about the “Global Health Mafia Protection Racket”, as the coronavirus conspiracy is called in some circles.   

But as with the virus itself, the proper strategy for stopping mad and bad conspiracy theories from circulating is controversial.

A lot is at stake. It’s not just a squabble over academic theories. As a New York Times journalist pointed out, “What if we get a Covid-19 vaccine and half the country refuses to take it?” What if, indeed. One site has already garnered 426,000 signatures on a petition to reject mandatory vaccination.

President Trump has announced “Operation Warp Speed” to develop a vaccine by January. But what if millions of American refuse to take it because they have learned on YouTube that it contains arsenic or that it will make their children autistic or that it is part of Bill Gates’s plan for world domination? The disease could spread more widely and thousands could die.

Broadly speaking, there are two strategies which are familiar to all of us: flattening the curve and herd immunity. Applying it to public opinion, “flattening the curve” means imposing social distancing on theories which are deemed to be dangerous.

At the moment, the single most powerful vector for transmitting the conspiracy virus is a 26-minute video starring a virologist named Judy Mikovits. It is a teaser for a longer documentary called Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 to be released soon. The film is based on her book, written with journalist Kent Heckenlively, Plague of Corruption: Restoring Faith in the Promise of Science.

Google and Facebook have removed the video from their sites. They explained that they were weeding out “content that includes medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice” about Covid-19. A search on YouTube for the video – which attracted millions of hits in just a few days – now yields only refutations of a video that no longer exists. (It can still be seen here.) The PlandemicMovie website is no longer accessible.

To be sure, Plandemic makes outlandish claims, mostly based on the authority of Dr Mikovits. Other “experts” are equally sceptical about conventional explanations for the pandemic – but are not identified. Much of the teaser is devoted to establishing Dr Mikovits' credentials as an authority-defying whistleblower whose work has been suppressed by the medical establishment, including the leading American voice in the fight against the virus, Dr Anthony Fauci.

Amongst her observations in the teaser are these:

  • Vaccines have killed millions of people since 1984
  • The coronavirus was manipulated in Fort Detrick, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Wuhan laboratory in China, where it first emerged.
  • Wearing masks activates the virus
  • Italy had a high fatality rate because of an untested flu vaccine
  • Microbes in sea water can heal COVID-19 patients
  • Flu vaccines increase the chance of contracting COVID-19 by 36%.

The claims made in the video have been fact-checked in Science, the New York Times, Retraction Watch, PoliFact, and elsewhere. They found that most of them are nonsense.

So Plandemic is nowhere to be seen (isolation) and everywhere refuted (contact tracking). The “mainstream media” have rolled out the most draconian form of social media social distancing to counter misinformation -- in a movie that no one has actually seen.

The question now is whether censorship by powerful social media monopolies will result in fewer people believing its claims -- or more. Remember the phrase "banned in Boston"? In the 1920s publishers rejoiced when their books were censured as immoral in the capital of Puritanism because they would sell far more elsewhere.

The opposite strategy is herd immunity. Allow the misinformation to circulate freely in the community of ideas. If its claims are so obviously rubbish, they will be easy to refute. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

This is the strategy which must have been employed by Thomas Edison. Instead of suing for defamation and seeking to close down the New York Herald, the conspiracy theorists were refuted by practical experience. There was no need to return to kerosene and whale oil to read on dark winter nights. Light globes did not cause the flu.


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