Conspiracy theories have been around since the beginning of human history. But recently, with the democratization of media and the growth of online forums, they have become more popular than ever. There is a certain appeal to them. They are manifestations of the cynicism and distrust we feel for large organisations or governments. And they allow us to easily rationalize events.
With the recent COVID-19 epidemic, conspiracy theories have once again begun to spread like wildfire. This has no doubt been helped by some extremely high profile people willfully ignoring scientists and spreading unfounded rumors and misinformation.
But again. This is nothing new. Conspiracy theories tend to abound around all epidemics or pandemics. They also tend to follow a similar, predictable pattern. Generally, either the entire crisis is denied altogether, or it is the work of some sinister underground group or foreign power. Conspiracy theorists tend to claim that the virus was artificially created. And that cures exist. But are being withheld from the general public for nefarious reasons. This is the kind of ‘evil mad scientist’ theories that Hollywood has helped to popularize.
For example, take the AIDS conspiracy theory. It seems incredible that an epidemic that has killed over 30 million people since the 1980s can be denied. But yet some people do. Many people in this community deny that there is a link between the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the disease called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Despite the protestations of respected medics and scientists. Some wackos even go further, and deny the existence of HIV at all. This is a very dangerous pseudoscience, closely linked to anti-vaxxer ideas. That has its roots in homophobic commentators spouting nonsense in the 1980s. The link between HIV and AIDS has been conclusively demonstrated, and is widely accepted in the scientific community. But this has not stopped this conspiracy theory from flourishing on the internet and in other groups.
Conspiracy theories are often taken lightly and joked about in the mainstream press, but it must be remembered that they can have a very serious effect on peoples lives. This is especially true when pseudoscience theories are embraced by national governments. As was the case with the South African government in the late 1990’s. The government of then president Thabo Mbeki embrace AIDS denial-ism, despite the lack of supporting scientific argument. Such high profile championing of this idea discouraged many HIV positive people from seeking treatments. Leading to as many as 300 thousand unnecessary deaths. This shows the true danger of unchecked conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately, this pattern has started to repeat itself with the recent Coronavirus pandemic. There are so many conspiracy theories around this virus that it is impossible to mention them all. Some people claim the virus was a biological weapon that was mistakenly released from a Chinese lab. Others claim that it was an American attack on Chine, designed to cripple their economy. Still others claim that it was an artificial concoction unleashed by the Chinese on their own citizens. Before spreading to the rest of the world. Sometimes it is hard to even trace a motive in these fairy tales, let alone find any evidence.
Most people rightly dismiss these fantasy claims, and concentrate on the information coming from reputable sources. But once again, these conspiracy theories are not as harmless as you might hope. In recent days, some of these wild theories have begun to gain traction with incredibly powerful people. Mostly in the United States government. Unfortunately, this misinformation spreads from the very top. With the president himself having tweeted some insane claims. By championing pernicious conspiracy theories he had begun to damage relations with China, one of the few countries to have effectively combated the disease. And also isolate himself from allies in Europe. This denial-ism could have a very real effect in the weeks to come, as the health system struggles to cope with the pandemic.
Endorsing Crazy Conspiracy Theories
Unfortunately, this president has a history of endorsing crazy conspiracy theories. In the past he has even went so far as to claim that global warming is a Chinese invention to harm the US economy. He has shown an unflattering tendency to embrace pure lies and fabrications. And unfortunately, as with the AIDS deniers in the past, his flights of fancy have the potential to ruin thousands of peoples lives.
Image: Ryan Somma