How conspiracy theories about COVID-19 went viral – Sydney Morning Herald https://rachidone.com/2020/04/how-conspiracy-theories-about-covid-19-went-viral-sydney-morning-herald/
April 2, 2020
As conspiracy theories go, the origins of the new COVID-19 pandemic offered all the right ingredients. Scientists think the virus jumped from wild animals into humans, likely in late 2019 in the bustling Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market of Wuhan, central China.
But it just so happens that a half-hour drive from that market, across the Yangtze River, is China’s highest-security biosafety laboratory. At the Wuhan Institute of Virology, hazard suits are de rigueur for scientists studying some of the world’s most dangerous diseases.
Within days of news that a new deadly coronavirus had been identified in humans, unfounded claims that it was really a bioweapon or escaped experiment from this Wuhan lab were spreading nearly as fast as the virus itself. Now the world is in the grip of its next pandemic, this time in the golden age of social media, and conspiracy theorists are in their element. But why do pandemics breed conspiracy theories? What are scientists saying? And is there any right way to argue with a conspiracy theorist?
Scientists at the epidemiological laboratory in Wuhan's Institute of Virology. What are the theories about COVID-19?
Some theories claim that COVID-19 is a population control scheme or a top-secret spy operation gone wrong. Others question whether it exists at all or point to similar (but unrelated) patents for coronavirus vaccines as a sign it’s all a cash grab by big pharmaceutical companies. More than one breathless Youtuber has blamed Wuhan’s recent rollout of 5G Wi-Fi.
Meanwhile, politicians from the US, Iran, South America, even China, have ignored the findings of their own scientists and seized on fringe theories to weaponise the crisis against their rivals. Kremlin-friendly sites and Chinese blogs hiss COVID-19 was cooked up by the CIA. The Trump White House, meanwhile, floats the theory that it’s really a plot to bring down the US President.
This story of a virus built in a lab is one of the most popular out there, but perhaps the most easily debunked.
The new strain’s genome has now been studied by thousands of scientists all around the world. They’ve already found a close match in a bat virus discovered in 2013, and say this new strain can only have evolved in nature – it’s too good to be a cut and paste job, and it would make a pretty poor weapon as it is highly contagious (and so uncontrollable) but not as deadly as other pathogens.
They don’t know exactly when or how it made the jump from animals into humans. But many of those first cases have been traced back to the Wuhan seafood market, where vendors were known to sell wildlife.
Such wet markets are notorious breeding grounds for disease as stressed animals from all corners of the world are caged close together, trading unfamiliar diseases, and then handled and butchered by humans. It happened that way with SARS, the first deadly coronavirus outbreak of the modern era, and then again with the second, MERS, this time along camel trade routes and slaughterhouses in the Middle East.
An image of a bamboo rat caged on top of a deer allegedly sold at the Wuhan seafood market has circulated online.
So why does the bioweapon rumour persist? Some of the trouble started with a draft paper, which was not peer reviewed, claiming to find traces of HIV artificially inserted into the new virus’ genetic code. The work was quickly withdrawn by its authors after it was debunked for using incorrect data but not before it was seized upon by blogs and right-wing pundits as “proof” of manipulation, eventually finding its way into a US senator’s talking points and Fox News bulletins.
Back at the lab in Wuhan, scientists were on the frontline of the outbreak in a sense – theirs was the only facility in China able to safely handle the new pathogen. The institute is an offshoot of the state-owned Chinese Academy of the Sciences but it wasn’t built for the development of “biological warfare”, as has been reported in some corners of the media, and virologists say it’s far from top-secret – international collaboration is common.
Forced to issue a statement denying rumours a student from the lab was the so-called Patient X, or first case, researchers said they had been “racing against time”, many of them recalled early from their holidays, to help identify and tackle the virus. Still suspicion lingered – viral leaks from labs are not without precedent and the centre had been studying coronaviruses, as are many such institutes around the world.
In fact, one of the team, China’s “bat woman”, respected virologist Shi Zhengli, had been warning another SARS-like coronavirus would jump from bats into humans sooner or later. When the call did come, one evening in early December, she reportedly checked all the lab’s samples, just in case something had been mishandled. It hadn’t, this virus was new but analysis found the strain was also 96 per cent similar to one that Shi herself had already identified seven years earlier, in a bat down in China’s south. That work cataloguing wild viruses may have now given the world a headstart on ending this pandemic.
Still accusations against the lab continue to cause headaches for its team – a known US conspiracy theorist and lawyer has even filed a multi-trillion-dollar lawsuit against Shi, the institute and the Chinese government over the release of a “bioweapon”. After a number of the researchers were targeted online and their personal details released, Shi herself was forced to make a statement swearing on her life the virus had not come from the lab.
Women in Australia during the Spanish flu epidemic. Rumours spread that the virus was a German weapon. Why are COVID-19 conspiracy theories spreading so fast? Because the velocity of stupid is only slightly less than the speed of light?
But is it really so crazy to believe a story like that? Colin Klein, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, says even though these theories are wrong, “things are changing rapidly [and] it’s not actually unreasonable to [assume] some people have more information than others.” Conspiracy theories are born out of the murky feeling that not all is being revealed to us, that the truth is still in shadow, and someone else is pulling the strings. During a fast-moving pandemic, where news breaks faster than scientists can make reliable findings, false credibility can attach to seemingly plausible explanations. In this case, crackdowns by Chinese police on doctors who raised the alarm about early cases of the mystery illness did not help, along with China’s history of covering up the extent of the SARS outbreak in 2002.
Klein specialises in the philosophy of neuroscience, and a research project on misinformation has meant he’s spent a lot of time on internet conspiracy theory forums where, for months already, there have been “quite a variety of COVID-19-related stuff”.
“Nobody has the full story yet,” he says. “Government and news outlets [haven’t] been super-reassuring – it may just be because there’s no reassurance to be had.”
But it’s not the first time the high-anxiety narrative of an outbreak has sent imaginations running wild. When the infamous 1918 Spanish flu finished its lethal sweep across the world at the end of WWI, it had claimed more lives than the war itself. And in the absence of a known source, stories quickly spread that the Germans had developed the virus as a new kind of weapon.
Nearly a hundred years later, Ebola was also wrongly called a biological weapon when it began its major rampage across Africa in 2014; and the Zika crisis of 2015 was blamed on everything from vaccinations to genetically engineered mosquitoes. A recent paper found that attempts to debunk these false Zika theories in Brazil at the time were wildly unsuccessful – if anything they just left people feeling less certain about all information coming to them, even from official channels.
But when yellow fever emerged in the same region just a few years later, efforts to counter the same inevitable deluge of misinformation had more impact – suggesting that conspiracies are harder to combat when a disease is new with less reliable information about it. The current Wuhan bioweapon conspiracy theory echoes the famous Cold War-era Operation Infektion when the KGB spread the lie that HIV was created in a US biological weapons laboratory at Fort Detrick in the US state of Maryland – right near where, coincidentally, Klein himself grew up.
All these diseases actually came from animals – as 70 per cent of all new pathogens emerging in humans do. As people push further and further into the world’s last wild places, such “spillovers” are happening more and more. The solution, experts say, is getting ahead of them, monitoring viruses circulating in likely carrier species such as bats and rethinking our riskier interactions with wildlife (including caging them for meat and parts or forcing them into populated areas by clearing forests). But conspiracy theories distract from this; often they become a smokescreen themselves.
US disease ecologist Dr Jon Epstein has been working with scientists such as Shi for the past 15 years to monitor animal viruses – together they even traced the original SARS strain back to a colony of bats. The “scientific evidence is overwhelming” that COVID-19 came from bats too, he says. “And we’ve been warning about it for a long time.” As the science crystallises, conspiracy theories will sink to the bottom of the conversation again. It’s already starting, Epstein says. But in the meantime, in the realm of public health, they can do real damage. How are politicians using the crisis for their own agendas?
Pandemics are frightening, fluid beasts and that makes them ripe for misinformation, warns Jessica Brandt, head of policy at the Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington DC. “This time the response has unfortunately become politicised,” she says.
While China and the US have attracted most of the blame in biological weapon theories circulating online, officials in both countries have spread plenty of their own conspiratorial notions too, trading blows in the war of messaging as the pandemic picks up steam. In the US, some conservatives have sought to recast the crisis as one of Chinese military aggression rather than a failure by China’s government to contain the outbreak. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and even US Senator Tom Cotton have also pointed to the Wuhan lab as its origin.
Meanwhile, by March, Chinese officials were conjuring the same conspiracy theories, only with their own anti-Western twist. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao has repeatedly tweeted articles from a known conspiracy theory site linking COVID-19 to Fort Detrick’s biowarfare program and even a recent US army stopover in Wuhan. Add to this loud efforts by Iran (and more stealthy online campaigns from Russian bots and pro-Kremlin media sites) to further sow doubt about the natural origins of the virus. Klein notes that conspiracy theories tend to track political interests, with COVID-19 being connected to a variety of agendas: “It’s being done to undermine Trump; [it] is being done to put in an authoritarian state; or get us ready for all having to be locked in our homes; or it’s being done to kill off the poor.”
In Washington DC, information warfare expert Molly McKew says there is certainly a political divide in conspiracy narratives right now, but distrust in institutions fuels common theories for everyone.
“Ideas about martial law and a massive expansion in government power make Americans of both sides of the political spectrum nervous,” she says. “People are quick to share rumours about emergency powers and expanded surveillance, some of it real or some of it not.” In the US, for example, as cities go into lockdown to stem the spread of COVID-19, people are not panic-buying just groceries but guns.
Kurt Russell in the 1982 movie The Thing
, which conjured a sense of obscure danger.
Kurt Russell in the 1982 movie The Thing
, which conjured a sense of obscure danger.Credit:Alamy What makes a really good conspiracy theory? To some extent, the same thing that makes a good Hollywood thriller, says Klein.
First, there’s the basic structure, the classic dramatic arc with a beginning, conflict, perhaps even a resolution – unlike the more messy and incomplete tale of COVID-19. “Somebody eats a bat and they get kind of sick and nobody notices for a while and then everybody gets kind of sick is not a very satisfying story,” says Klein. “If you were to take that to your short-story writing class people would say, ‘That’s a terrible story. Come back later.'” Then there is mood. There’s a very real sense of “obscure danger” to COVID-19 as it unfolds, and that plays straight into a more elaborate narrative.
“You don’t know here it came from, who has it or who doesn’t – where it might come from next,” Klein says. “It could be anybody, it could be the person next to you on the bus. That’s a good device for building dramatic tension, right? [Like the] great old movie The Thing with Kurt Russell, with a shape-shifting alien – that’s a great set-up and I think pandemics have a similar feeling to them.”
Where does the toilet paper hoarding fit in, though? “It’s weird that people go for this,” says Klein. “But pandemics touch on this feeling of vulnerability about your body and your health and people’s panic reaction is not to buy a bunch of quinoa, it’s to buy toilet paper – to buy things that are about cleanliness and purity to ward off the disease. In general, feelings about purity and cleanliness make for good stories, [they] can be emotionally powerful.”
Is there a typical profile of a conspiracy theorist?
Some people have a conspiracy mindset. Perhaps they distrust institutions or feel disempowered by the status quo. They can be someone sharing a meme on Facebook all the way through to what Klein describes as those with “lots of things on [the] wall with yarn going between them”, making connections where they want to find them. But more commonly, people harbour conspiracy beliefs on topics that push their buttons.
“Someone has a bad experience with the police, maybe that primes them [to believe in police cover-ups],” Klein says. “It’s not outlandish in the US to think that the police killed somebody and covered it up, because that actually happens. It’s probably wrong – but it’s not crazy.” Is the internet to blame? There’s no doubt cyberspace is fertile ground for conspiracy theories
– as with the theories themselves, everything on the web is connected. Social media algorithms favour content that generates high emotional responses in people over rational or verified sites. With no fact-check built into platforms, a seductive conspiracy theory has little barrier from spreading: all it needs is people to react.
But these theories don’t only crop up online; they can surface in popular music, around the dinner table, even in mainstream media. And they didn’t begin with the internet age – the US alone has a long history of conspiratorial thinking.
False accusations that the British were secretly planning to enslave the American colonists even helped spark revolution in 1775. In a famous 1964 essay on The Paranoid Style in American Thinking, historian Richard Hofstadter describes conspiratorial types “always manning the barricades of civilisation”. But it is “the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant,” he says.
How do you argue with a conspiracy theorist?
There’s little point, says Klein, given the self-reinforcing nature of the theories themselves. “I could say, ‘It’s wrong,’ but that just shows I’m part of the conspiracy too: Professor Obviously in League With the Government Helping Them Cover It Up.”
In a similar vein, Facebook or YouTube removing conspiratorial misinformation can serve to make people feel like something is being suppressed. Why people continue to believe such stories in spite of scientific rebuttal reflects the reality of our information environment today, says Brandt. “Lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it.”
But some say the new ability for such theories to catch on in the mainstream through the fast, supercharged medium of the internet means they can’t just be ignored either. While banning a shock jock such as the American Alex Jones for peddling falsehoods online might make him a martyr to his devoted followers, it could also stop him reaching new audiences. And some studies suggest dismantling theories with logic can actually work – especially when the person pointing out the holes in the story is perceived to be smart and competent. Increasingly, authorities treat such misinformation contagion like their biological equivalent – proactively pushing out the right facts to inoculate people against unfounded theories or encouraging good information hygiene (such as checking sources). Even before COVID-19 had exploded into a pandemic, the World Health Organisation had teamed up with the likes of Google and Facebook to try to reach audiences with its own set of facts before conspiracy theorists could.
These days, Klein says he considers such theories more as symptoms of a bigger problem, whether it be lack of transparency or a failure of communication.
“I think just trying to tackle … conspiracy theories on their own doesn’t do much compared to trying to figure out why people believe these things and what you can do to stop that broader problem,” he says.
For most people, the more consistent and clear the messaging is from the people higher up, the better – even if that information is “we don’t know yet”.
“But there’s a sense in which trying to engage with full-bore conspiracy theorists just, at best, sucks you deeper into what they believe,” Klein says.
“Once you fully get in, it’s very hard to get out.” Five conspiracy flicks to watch while you stay at home
The Capture (ABC iView)
A British soldier is found not guilty of a crime in Afghanistan only to become the suspect in his barrister’s kidnapping in London. The incriminating evidence in both “crimes” is video footage. But is it real? The deployment of modern surveillance technologies to ping hapless citizens comes under the microscope as a London detective uncovers a web of conspiracies that, naturally, cross continents and go right to the top.
Secret City (Netflix) Saw it; excellent.
Lake Burley Griffin takes on a sinister edge in this thriller set in our national capital, based on the book by journalists Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. Jackie Weaver plays the attorney-general and minister for home affairs with mesmerising charm – “Better get your raincoat, Mal, ‘cos you’ve unleashed a s–storm of biblical proportions” – while Anna Torv plays a political journalist seeking truth and transparency, despite threats to her life and career.
After her computer programmer boyfriend vanishes, a young woman is drawn into the smoke and mirrors world of the “Devs” division of a quantum computing company – which is developing a mysterious predictive algorithm that challenges the notion of free will. Cue spies wrestling in underground car parks, bright young things brainstorming humanity-altering code and a sense of creeping dread among the Californian redwoods.
A veritable smorgasbord of classic conspiracy theories – the Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked, Hitler lived beyond World War II, and so on – explored in 12 episodes. Sure, there are cameo appearances from Lord Lucan and Jimmy Hoffa but not everyone is a usual suspect – was martial arts star Bruce Lee murdered? – and provocations include “Do governments sometimes sacrifice their own people for political gain?” Surely not.
Contagion (Amazon Prime)
“In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumour,” is a public health official’s retort to a conspiracy theorist in this 2011 pandemic blockbuster that’s been name-checked an awful lot lately. The conspiracy theorist, played by Jude Law, weaves an apparently compelling story on his blog and on TV – something about Big Pharma and a natural cure that is, of course, being covered up by the powers that be.
Sherryn Groch is the explainer reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor.
Felicity is the National Explainer Editor and Multimedia Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, WA Today and The Brisbane Times.