Jewish people around the world must, for the first time in the face of a global crisis, be smiling. For once they are not to blame and not even the nuttiest conspiracy theorist can draw a pretty little line between the Jews, China, bats and a global pandemic. But then, nutty doesn’t even begin to describe some of the conspiracy theories people believe.
I remember exactly where I was when the planes hit the towers. I was at The Star newspaper, head down, editing a story on contemporary dance meeting traditional ballet. I was lost in the transformative, heavenly image of the writer, Adrienne Sichel’s descriptions, so I was oblivious when the usual white noise of the newsroom went quiet. I still didn’t look up when gasps filled the room and there was a stampede to the television sets.
A colleague grabbed me by the collar and dragged me around. I looked up at the screen and saw a plane explode into the World Trade Centre. My first reaction after the shock was: this is not simply terrorism, and in that blink, according to Malcolm Gladwell, is the truth.
All these years later, after countless investigations, I still believe that there is more to the events that brought down the towers than what we are being told, and that makes me a conspiracy theorist.
Like most things in life, however, conspiracy theories come in degrees, and pondering about what has not been communicated about the World Trade Centre attacks is a far cry from believing that the Earth is flat, that the queen is a lizard and that 5G is at the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic. I like to believe that questioning the establishment is a good thing, whereas believing in conspiracies despite a lack of evidence, is bad.
Conspiracy theories are, understandably, at their most prevalent. The coronavirus pandemic is like a petri dish of delight for conspiracy theorists where almost any crackpot idea can be cultivated. The options are endless as the effects of the virus are so far reaching, infecting numerous facets of society from health to the economy, restrictive government policies, racial and gender profiling, global politics and world domination, elections, capitalism and even our cultural differences.
But what, exactly is a conspiracy theory? Thankfully, the definition is in the name. They are theories, which means they are simply principles, or speculations, though a more formal definition would require them to be “plausible”. And they are conspiratorial, which, if we go back to the fourteenth century, means they involve: “a plotting of evil, unlawful design; a combination of persons for an evil purpose”; let’s just say they are nefarious.
Conspiracy theories have, of course, been around forever, and this, according to author and historian Yuval Noah Harari is for two reasons. Firstly, we love blaming everyone else for our own problems, and secondly, we are lazy.
In a recent interview, Harari said that not only do we blame people on an individual level, but on a social level too: “Throughout Christian Europe a conspiracy theory spread that the black death was caused by the Jews. An international conspiracy of Jews to poison the wells of Christian communities. And they tortured several Jews in Europe and extracted confessions … this spread all over Europe and there were huge pogroms … massacring entire communities because of this conspiracy theory.” There needed to be a biblical scapegoat for the plague and this time it wasn’t god, but the Jews. Europe had found someone to blame.
A more current example, says Harari, is the accusations made against Muslims in India that they are deliberately spreading coronavirus to hurt Hindus.
With regards to conspiracy theories being born from laziness, Harari says: “the human mind … searches for simple stories and the truth is complicated. One of the hallmarks of scientific truth is that it is quite complicated. The human mind did not evolve to understand things such as genetics and viruses … it is much simpler to think that the Jews are poisoning the wells or the Chinese invented some virus to take over the world. This is the kind of thing that we can easily grasp.”
As much as I respect Harari, I find both his reasons for the construction of conspiracy theories lazy.
Firstly, conspiracy theories are usually far from simple and are generally a lot more complicated than the conventional explanations. It takes some seriously complicated intellectual trickery to present a convincing theory that the Earth is flat, or that the moon landing was faked, or that Göbleki Tepe is evidence of a master civilization dating back 12 000 years. The science we have around these issues is comparatively easy compared to the “science” used to counter conventional theories. It seems that there is a direct and inverse correlation between conspiracy theories and Occam’s Razor, which makes sense as the more complicated a theory is, the more difficult it is to disprove.
The notion that the coronavirus began by some fool eating a bat is nice and simple and neat and certainly uncomplicated. The idea that the virus was released as part of Chinese world domination and that Bill Gates is somehow involved, is complicated. Yes, Harari’s point is that viruses themselves are difficult to understand, but this is not true for all conspiracy theories: the assassination of JFK and Elvis’s death, for example, are simple, and seriously people, Denver airport is just an airport.
In a tweet Harari said: “If somebody tries to convince you of a conspiracy theory about the origin and spread of coronavirus, ask them to first explain what a virus is, and how it causes disease. If they don’t have a clue, don’t trust their theory. A PhD isn’t a must – but basic biology is.” Although I like the sentiment of what Harari is saying, I again have to disagree.
It is clear that we do not need to understand the biology involved in viruses to advance theories on the origin and spread of the pandemic, especially when virology is only a small component in understanding the virus’s origin and spread. Of course, we should only explore or entertain theories (conspiracy or not) that align with sound scientific explanations and this eradicates many theories. Similarly, a virologist doesn’t need to understand the complexities of economics to propose the theory that a virus was created (as it biologically could have) in a laboratory at the command of Bill Gates in order to collapse our current economic system. I do not need a basic understanding in biology to look at the credibility of this claim and pass it on. We all trust people far more knowledgeable than ourselves.
Having said that, maybe Harari just meant that we should use this as an idiot test. It is unlikely, for example, that QAnon followers putting forward the “mole children” theory can tie their shoelaces, let alone understand basic biology. For those of you who haven’t heard this theory (and I use this definition very loosely) QAnon followers hold that the virus is a ploy to arrest members of the satanic “deep state” (Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton) and to release their hostages (sex-slave children) from underneath Central Park. Sounds plausible.
But some conspiracy theorists are clearly smarter than this and say what you like about the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief (no, not Trump), Alex Jones, he is clearly no idiot, even if his ideas are idiotic (there’s a paradox). Here is a man who can more than tie his shoelaces, and yet believes that the US government has “weather weapons”, chemicals in the water are turning frogs gay, Robert Mueller is a demon and a paedophile, the Sandy Hook shooting was staged and Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlour.
Harari has his own theories about the virus, a theory that conveniently omits biology, saying: “I think the biggest danger is not the virus itself. Humanity has all the scientific knowledge and technological tools to overcome the virus. The really big problem is our own inner demons, our own hatred, greed and ignorance. I’m afraid that people are reacting to this crisis not with global solidarity, but with hatred, blaming other countries, blaming ethnic and religious minorities.” This is a kind of conspiracy theory that is scared of conspiracy theories. It’s not the virus that is spreading like viruses do, that’s the issue, but rather our inner demons and blame culture that will destroy us. Sound conspiratorial to me.
And it’s not just me and Yuval, conspiracy theories are extremely common with one study showing that half of all Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. A more thorough explanation than Harari’s for this is that there are a number of psychological mechanisms, many the result of evolutionary processes, that contribute to these beliefs. Many of these explanations, according to Very Well Mind, boil down to three key driving factors:
- A need for understanding and consistency (epistemic);
- A need for control (existential); and
- A need to belong or feel special (social).
These are all fairly easy to grasp, and make theoretical sense. Clearly we have a strong desire to make sense of the world and when we can’t we often smash a square peg of understanding into a round hole of reason. This comforts us – better the devil you know. This, of course means, as perhaps Harari was suggesting, that the lower someone’s educational level, the higher the chance they believe in conspiracy theories.
One study found that people who feel psychologically and socio-politically disempowered are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, while another study found that people are also more likely to believe in conspiracies when they are experiencing anxiety.
What I find particularly interesting, is how this all breaks down along political ideology lines. According to research recently done by The Atlantic: “Conspiracy thinking is most predictive of beliefs in specific conspiracy theories when partisan leaders don’t stake out positions, and least predictive when they do.” Currently, I would argue that Republicans are therefore more likely to believe conspiracy theories than democrats.
Accentuating this is the fact that the man in the White House is clearly a slightly less charismatic and “informed” Alex Jones, practically vomiting some conspiracy theory or another daily on Twitter. Today, it was simply: “Obamagate”, a conspiracy that not even he can explain. But Trump’s use of conspiracy theories goes back to even before his election, with those about Barack Obama’s citizenship (“His grandmother says he was born in Kenya, and was there for the birth, okay? He doesn’t have a birth certificate”), climate change (“It’ll get a little bit cooler, it will get a little bit warmer, like it always has for millions of years – it’s called weather”), Britain First, Spygate, voter impersonation and even, ahem, windmills causing cancer.
Trump’s use of conspiracy theories may, of course, be the clever machinations of an evil genius (I’m just saying that for balance). Jennifer Mercieca, the author of the forthcoming Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, says that “Conspiracy is a ‘self-sealing’ narrative—it can never be disproven.” This is an excellent characteristic that allows Trump to posit theories that take a long time to investigate and turns attention away from the real issues, such as his horrendous response to the virus. “The logics of conspiracy cover up the lack of proof (they are hiding the proof) or disconfirming proof (they can’t be trusted to tell the truth). He who wields conspiracy is very powerful because he can point suspicion in any direction he likes,” says Mercieca.
But it can also be incredibly dangerous. Calling the coronavirus and climate change “hoaxes” has far- reaching implications. After all, this man was voted into power and has a sizeable (though diminishing) fanbase. Remarkably, his party and the conservative media buy into his bullshit, as they continue to cast doubt on the reality of the pandemic, even as the death toll rises. Rush Limbaugh, for instance, suggested that public-health officials are deep-state operatives and might not even be health experts.
Back at home, conspiracy theories are usually just reality. When politics and business are as openly corrupt as they are here, there is little need for the concoction of fanciful explanations. What exactly are the reasons for the extension of the lockdown and the excruciatingly slow phased approach to get us out of it? For the first time in a very long time the Democratic Alliance made some sense, when leader John Steenhuisen questioned the government’s handling of the situation. And what really is going on with the continued banning of cigarettes and alcohol? Could it be that Dlamini-Zuma really is neck-deep in the black goods market and with each day the lockdown extends she gets richer? This is more likely to be fact than a conspiracy theory.
When governments behave in such a manner that counters all reason and is against scientific evidence and advice, it is only natural to assume that there are dark forces at play. When that government has a track record of horrendous corruption, then conspiracy theories are redundant.
Like the old adage: just because you are paranoid, doesn’t mean they are not following you. Just because it is a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean it’s not true. If things get really bad, and all other theories fail … we can still blame the Jews.