This story originally appeared in the 2019-20 issue of Perspectives, the official magazine of the College of Humanities. To see the full issue, click here.
Conspiracy theories about COVID-19 abound. There are the 5G variety. These purport in one way or another to attribute the pandemic to the roll out of 5G cell towers—either that the towers magnify the transmission of the virus, or that the towers are the actual cause of the illness. Then you’ve got your Bill Gates variety. These put the founder of Microsoft behind the whole affair—either that he’s cashing in on the infectious disease to make money off a vaccine, or that he’s actually engineering the whole thing and planning to insert digital microchips in all of us under the guise of a vaccine. And don’t forget the U.S. government variety. You may have caught the viral video “Plandemic” circulating in April, which is an instance. These versions mark the federal government as the nefarious force—either that the CIA created the virus and released it on the unsuspecting Chinese people, or that public-servant scientists like Dr. Anthony Fauci are using the virus to make the American populace dependent on a government vaccine.
These COVID conspiracies proliferate on social media. If your Facebook feed looks anything like mine, what’s puzzling is the fact that people who are drawn to these conspiracy theories tend to promote them rather indiscriminately—to the point where a “Plandemic” video shared one day placing blame on the government, is followed up by a meme the next day attributing it to Bill Gates and then followed up a day after that with a link to British conspiracy extraordinaire David Icke’s interview about 5G towers. It can’t be Dr. Fauci and Gates and 5G. So, what’s going on here?
We can start to understand this strange phenomenon by turning to a study that psychologists at the University of Kent conducted after the 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The researchers asked study participants what happened to bin Laden and gave the participants the opportunity to rate explanations that they found most convincing—that bin Laden died from a Navy SEAL bullet in Abbottabad, that bin Laden was in fact already dead when the soldiers reached Pakistan, that bin Laden wasn’t even there and actually is still alive somewhere. Remarkably, the Kent researchers found that the more participants were inclined to believe the already-dead explanation the more they were simultaneously inclined to believe the not-dead-yet explanation.
The Kent psychologists’ key insight was that the participants drawn to conspiracy theories weren’t drawn to any particular conspiracy theory. Rather, they were just skeptical of the official, government story. So, any alternatives to the official version of events—even alternatives that were mutually incompatible—were judged believable.
That brings us back to COVID. An infectious disease pandemic makes painfully clear how interdependent we all are—with our families, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. A virus doesn’t respect county, state, or national borders. As a result, responding to a pandemic requires careful coordination and concerted collaboration in order to track the spread and minimize transmission. There are organizations made up of professionals expertly trained to do that—public health departments, epidemiological services, and the World Health Organization.
The problem is that a significant portion of Americans perceive such collaboration and such professionals with profound suspicion. Robert Goldberg, professor of history at the University of Utah, points out in his Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America that Americans have been drawn to conspiracy theories for centuries. Fears about encroachment on individual liberties and an embrace of anti-elitism got built into the fabric of the country from the outset and fueled all sorts of conspiracies —about aliens, about the death of JFK, about the antichrist. These forces continue to work during the current pandemic. “Careful coordination” and “concerted collaboration,” for some Americans, smacks of communism and threatens an individual’s right to decide, for example, whether or not they want to wear a mask. Public health officials, for some Americans, are nothing more than elitists from the “deep state,” hellbent on disrupting a maverick president.