Everyone knows a good conspiracy theory, some of them even turn out to be true. But for every true one there are dozens of those that make you think, “How could anyone believe that?” Yet some people really do appear to believe that the Royals are an alien lizard race, or that the planes we saw hitting the World Trade Centre were computer generated graphics. What makes people prone to believing some conspiracy theories while outright rejecting others?
I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons for this, and a psychologist will be much better able to answer than myself. But I have been noticing a trend recently, and I feel the need to say something. Its clear that many people are willing to believe accusations against, and conspiracy theories regarding, foreign governments that they would never believe to be true of their own government.
As China rises in economic, political and military strength they are upsetting the current status quo – US global hegemony. This has led to them being labelled a “threat” by the American political establishment, an accusation picked up and repeated by many in the UK. Not so coincidentally, many stories and articles have been circulating widely, detailing this or that supposed wrongdoing by the “evil” and “corrupt” Chinese government. Similar stories have been doing the rounds about Russia for a while longer. To me these stories look like part of a propaganda war, designed to turn us against these countries and thereby more likely to accept American and British aggression towards them. The same has happened to Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq, and many more. Why do we keep falling for it?
I’m not the thought police, and I have no interest in filling that role, but I do question why people will believe a story about Russia or China (or any other country) that they would never believe about their own country. Nobody is denying that bad things have happened in Russia or China, so does their prior behaviour explain this apparent bias in what we are prepared to believe? I don’t think so. After all, very bad things have also happened in the USA (the genocide of the indigenous population, for example) and the British Empire was responsible for bloodshed and starvation all over the globe. Yet by and large our population will give the Americans and the Brits the benefit of the doubt.
Where we mentally place the burden of proof tells us a lot about our pre-existing biases. The majority of our population take an “innocent until proven guilty” attitude towards the USA and the UK, but will simultaneously take the opposite “guilty until proven innocent” attitude towards China. We see this in how the media will report on the same issue in different countries.
Take the official numbers of those infected with the Covid virus as an example. We are told that the official numbers in the USA are lower than the actual numbers infected because they’ve been “under-estimated”, but we are told that in China the official numbers are lower than the actual numbers because the Chinese government has been involved in a cover up. When China put Wuhan on lock down to try and contain the virus the move was called “draconian” by the New York Times. When the Italians put large parts of their country on lock down for the same reason, the New York Times called it a “brave” move.
This blatant hypocrisy in how the media reports on issues, as well as the shameless politicising of crises such as the one we are facing, is surely a big part of the explanation of why many will believe any accusation or conspiracy theory levelled against countries such as China. They are involved in a cover up, they are deliberately trying to hurt us, they only send us dodgy medical equipment, they developed the virus as a weapon. Conspiracy theories from the mundane to the outlandish, all believed by otherwise reasonable people.
The virus that causes Covid-19 is a naturally occurring pathogen and a common enemy of humanity, it is not a weapon of any country targeting another. Instead, it is those politicising the pandemic who are weaponizing the virus as part of their information war against China. With the nature of the internet, these smears and accusations quickly take on a life of their own and evolve into crazy conspiracy theories. The powers that be are aware of this and are happy to encourage the spread of these theories and fake news. Collectively we need to be smarter than this.
Details of a telephone conversation between Mike Pompeo (US Secretary of State) and Jens Stoltenberg (NATO Secretary General) reveal that the two emphasised the “importance of countering the spread of disinformation” from China related to the virus. Given that they have both been trying to convince anyone who will listen of a threat from China by making all kinds of false accusations, it is unsurprising that they should seek to exploit the pandemic this way. Unfortunately, given their respective backgrounds, too many people will excuse their attempts to manipulate people’s fears and suffering.
Others will see it for what it is – insensitive and insulting. A callous and cowardly attempt to create threats to justify their own political existence. In being the ones who are actually spreading disinformation they not only underline their own hypocrisy, they also jeopardise the concerted efforts needed to neutralise the threat of the pandemic, and are quite happy to do so at the cost of people’s lives.
Unfortunately, too many people who should know better are all too happy to help spread fake news and conspiracy theories. When it comes to bashing your perceived enemies, the truth and facts can take a hike. Again, we need to be better than this. We need to be smarter than this.
So let me deal with just some of the fake news I’ve seen people who should really know better repeating. Think of the accusation made by Pompeo and Stoltenberg that China is spreading disinformation about the virus. What did the Chinese state say that was untrue? Some would answer this by claiming that China “covered up” the extent of the epidemic in Wuhan in particular.
This fake news story uses the following logic – the numbers of infected people in Wuhan was actually much higher than the official numbers released by the Chinese government. Therefore the Chinese government has been involved in some sort of cover up.
Now there is a sliver of truth to this one. The numbers of infected people in Wuhan is indeed much higher than the official numbers released by the Chinese government. How do I know this? Because the Chinese government told us so. They’re not covering it up!
Remember that Wuhan was extremely hard hit by the virus. The hospitals there simply couldn’t cope. They (famously) very quickly built three new hospitals just to help with the situation, but even that wasn’t enough. There just wasn’t enough room in the hospitals for everyone. So the authorities had to ask people who didn’t have severe symptoms not to come to the hospital, so that only those most in need could get a place in the hospitals. The result of this was that many infected people simply stayed home, suffered through the illness as best they could until they recovered naturally, and were never captured by the official figures because they were never known to the authorities.
This was not a great situation for China to be in, but they had to make tough decisions at the time and this was how they proceeded. Importantly, they were always open and transparent about the situation in Wuhan. Anyone who had actually bothered to listen would know that China was telling us the situation was actually worse than the official figures suggested. Just because the West didn’t care to listen does not make China guilty of a cover up.
There is another angle to the “Chinese cover up story” that has also been doing the rounds. This one centres on the fact that some researchers and doctors were punished for trying to alert people to the existence of the virus back in December. This one certainly doesn’t look good for China, but we should still be careful to be factual in our critiques here. As the Chinese say, we should seek truth from facts.
So what are the facts here, as opposed to the fake news elements? First of all we should bear in mind that China, unlike the West but like other countries in Asia, has very strict “fake news” laws. In other words, deliberately spreading fake news is actually illegal here. Now usually this works quite well, and so the media here can generally be trusted even if you don’t care for their editorial position. This was an example of the law going wrong, but lets try to understand why and where it went wrong.
Chronologically we are still in December 2019. The existence of the virus is not yet known outside of a small number of doctors and researchers in Wuhan. When reports of stories about a scary new virus are reported to a local police station in Wuhan, how is the police officer assigned to the case to ascertain if the fake news laws have been broken? The police officer determined that the doctors and researchers were spreading rumours designed to incite panic, and so punished accordingly. The punishment was that they were ordered to write letters of self criticism and their employers were notified. Some of their employers also dished out their own punishments. Clearly what the officer did was wrong, he did not follow proper procedures, and the investigation into how he handled the matter concludes exactly that.
Does any of this mean the Chinese government was guilty of a cover up? No. The punishments were handed out by a local police station, not by the central government. In fact, when the case became known to the Chinese government they despatched the nation’s top anti-corruption agency to Wuhan to investigate. The central agency concluded that the local police were wrong, ordered that all punishments be removed from the records of the accused, ordered that the police officer and his superiors be reprimanded accordingly, ordered that training on the correct procedures be given to the local police and ordered that the public be fully informed about all details on the matter. Certainly there is room for factual criticism here, but again, lets stick to the facts and avoid the fake news. This is not a cover up.
There is worse fake news out there, being passed off as reliable information. Political figures in both the US and China have accused the other side of developing the virus in a lab as some sort of weapon, and then either deliberately or accidentally releasing it. Certainly comments from Trump claiming that the virus is a biological weapon, and that if China has it then he wants it for America, helps fuel this particular theory. So does the fact that there is a virus lab only 400 meters from the wet market in Wuhan (where the virus spread like wildfire but probably didn’t originate). Likewise so does the fact that the USA had to shut down one of its own virus facilities at Fort Detrick after it emerged that on over 1000 occasions in the last ten years pathogens had gone missing. I could go on, but I won’t.
The virus isn’t a weapon, it wasn’t made in a lab. A team of international researchers (including some from Scotland based at Edinburgh University) have studied the origin of the virus, and been able to show that it evolved naturally. This should really kill the conspiracy theories, but I have a feeling it won’t. (If you want to know how they arrived at this conclusion —– > clicky )
So why do these conspiracy theories and fake news stories persist? Why are they not recognised for what they are and simply ignored? I noted above that much blame lies with how these stories are created by the media and how they are reported depending on the country being reported on. Individually, we also have to take some blame. Too many people seem to have a psychological aversion to facts when looking for a stick to beat their perceived enemies with. Standards of truth and honesty come second to scoring points in never ending online debates. Cognitive biases are certainly at play here. People are naturally inclined to to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs. So when they run across a theory that supports those beliefs they often unquestioningly just accept it as true. Those who believe that China is some sort of corrupt totalitarian state will be inclined to believe fake news about China without bothering to check the facts. We have to be better than that.
Those who are putting political and ideological differences above saving lives, by not cooperating to combat the pandemic are being inhuman and immoral. We should be careful that we don’t unwittingly help them by spreading their fake news for them. A lie repeated often enough has a way of gaining credibility. As mistrust and tensions between China and the West continue to grow, we are creeping towards a second Cold War. Pompeo and Stoltenberg will be fine with that, it would justify their political existence. Would it really be so great for the rest of us?