Conspiracy theories have been rooted in the public consciousness since homo sapiens first learned to communicate. As radio and television allowed us almost instant access to news, the intrigues and conjectures multiplied. From the theory that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone when he assassinated President Kennedy, to the supposition that Harold Wilson was a Soviet spy, or that the first moonwalk was faked in a Hollywood studio, we have never been short of far-fetched ideas that stretched credulity. But the arrival of social media has catapulted conspiracy theories into the mainstream. The keyboard warriors of facebook, twitter, youtube, instagram and a multitude of other outlets, now bombard the gullible daily with tales that would confound the imagination of Hans Christian Andersen.
Covid-19 has been a ripe breeding ground for particularly batty and often idiotically dangerous conspiracies, like the idea that the rollout of 5G cellular networks was responsible for the pandemic. The nutters claimed that coronavirus was caused by 5G and that the metal strip in surgical masks was actually a 5G antenna, rather than a clever way of ensuring the mask would fit snugly over the bridge of your nose. There was, of course, never a shred of evidence linking 5G to Covid-19, but that didn’t stop the loonies from assaulting telecoms workers and setting fire to 5G masts and base stations. Of course, myths about 5G and even 4G and 3G, were doing the rounds long before the pandemic arrived. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the devices could damage DNA and cause cancer. In fact, 5G sits so far down the radiation emissions spectrum that it is harmless. Like microwaves and radio waves, which we have lived with safely for decades, there are no adverse health effects caused by mobile phones, apart from their irritating and inappropriate use at the dinner table!
Theories about what might have caused the pandemic are bad enough, but conspiracies about the attempts to stop it are even worse. The anti-vaxxers have had a field day with claims that a 99.99% recovery rate from Covid proves that the vaccines are not about saving lives. Of course, the figures are incorrect and are based on an estimate of how many people have died after catching Covid-19, even then using a death-rate figure that is far too low. But the anti-vaxxers can extrapolate this theory to surmise that the government is injecting micro-chips into the public so that they can exert some sort of Orwellian control, or alternatively, that the vaccine is designed to cause mass infertility in young people to restrict population growth. They trot out the tedious arguments that the vaccines are designed to manipulate genes and have never been properly tested, arguing that most vaccines have to be checked over a period of 10-15 years before being released for public use. They claim that all of us who’ve been double jabbed now face an uncertain future of blood clots, autoimmune disorders or even death. In fact, although the vaccines have been authorised for emergency use due to the severity of the pandemic, the technology behind them has been developed over many years, including extensive animal and clinical testing. The vaccines are in no way “experimental” as claimed by the anti-vaxxers. With billions of people around the world now vaccinated against Covid-19, the efficacy and safety of the programme is undeniable and its reliability as a life saver unarguable.
Is it a strange coincidence or is there a weird correlation between those who are passionately opposed to the vaccine and those who deny climate-change? The two always seem to go hand in hand. Quite often the same people even have a soft spot for former president Donald Trump. They frequently quote Trump’s assertion that “prophets of doom” and “alarmists” have invented climate change so that they can “control every aspect of our lives.” They claim that the raging wildfires and devastating floods that have beset the planet are the result of government incompetence and mismanagement. They say that melting polar ice caps and collapsing glaciers are simply an illustration that global temperatures are continuing their gradual recovery from the Little Ice Age. But the scientific consensus is overwhelming and unequivocal. The planet is getting warmer and humans are behind it. For the anti-vaxxers, denying climate change has become an act of almost religious faith.
Of course, the mystery of religious faith has tormented humankind for millennia, but it is deeply disturbing that in 2021, there are still leading politicians who deny the science of evolution and believe that the world is only 10,000 years old. The creationists and flat earth enthusiasts must surely rank amongst the crankiest of conspiracy theorists. There are even people who believe that Finland doesn’t really exist. They claim it was a fabricated landmass, dreamed up by the Japanese and Soviet Union during the Cold War, in an effort to secure fishing rights in the Baltic Sea!
Such views are deviant enough, but the more extreme conspiracy theories, such as the accusation that the US government was behind the 9-11 terrorist attacks, caused real harm and distress to the families and friends of the 2,977 people who died and the 25,000 who were injured. Conspiracy theories thrive in a world where many people feel powerless or alienated. It can be appealing to believe that there are big powers and forces plotting against you and your interests. Conspiracy theories flourish in times of crisis. When people feel insecure, they often search for information that can provide an explanation for chaotic events, like the assassination of JFK, the 9-11 attacks, the pandemic and climate change. Many of the conspiracy loonies, who exchange their fetid theories on social media, believe that the world is run by the Illuminati, an elite secret society of mega-powerful rulers. What they have failed to grasp is that incompetence is a better explanation than conspiracy and most of the world’s leaders are not nearly smart enough to do half the things the conspiracy theorists reckon they do. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s security adviser, said “History is much more a product of chaos than of conspiracy.” He was right.