Superstitions have always emerged in times of crises, especially so during pandemics. The Black Death killed up to 200 million in Eurasia and Africa between 1346 and 1353. In the attempt to make sense of the piles of bodies that built up in their towns and villages, myths emerged, and scapegoats were found.
It was said that miasmic vapours brought the disease from the Far East. Or that it was carried in the steam that belched out of the centre of the Earth. Many thought it was a punishment from God for collective sin, a belief that gave rise to the flagellants, and in turn provided the foundation for several Blackadder sketches.
The Black Death was also blamed on Jews, who were suspected of poisoning wells. Although this merely reflected the ongoing persecution of Jews in Europe and certainly didn’t start — or end — when the plague hit Europe in 1346.
No-one blamed the fleas that infested rats as they arrived on ships from Asia, as the notion of zoonotic transfer evaded our predecessors. Those fleas provide an early example of one of the downsides to globalisation, as reflected in today’s populism, xenophobia and trade wars. And the conspiracy theories that have emerged around them.
For this next part, I aimed to pinpoint the precise source of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19. But there’s a lot of conflicting evidence out there, and despite a number of furry and scaled suspects, there is currently no definitive animal perpetrator. Or as a team of scientists in Nature magazine wrote: “Neither the bat betacoronaviruses nor the pangolin betacoronaviruses sampled thus far have polybasic cleavage sites.” So, yeah. The jury is out. Scientific opinion varies as to whether the virus can be pinned to an unfortunate pangolin, a flock of bats, or even unicorns. But it did emerge in the ghastly-named wet market in Wuhan, China.
So while the exact form of its animal daemon is unclear, the virus was unlikely to have been engineered in a lab, despite the claims of hawkish US Senators with a nervous eye on growing Chinese influence. There is no evidence that the virus was formulated by scientists in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, despite what Fox News says.
Disagree? Take it up with the World Health Organisation, White House coronavirus task force member Dr Anthony Fauci, and The Office of the Director of National Intelligence for the United States of America. You know, experts.
So, for the purposes of this article, and to provide a neat headline, we are sticking to the bat theory.
It’s tin foil time
Many continue to doubt this relatively benign explanation, however. The clueless arrogance that comes of having both a Facebook account and a gullible cousin with a Chemistry ‘A’ level is easily manipulated by politicians with ulterior motives. The resulting suspicions are fed by irresponsible media, and nurtured by the sheer amount of conspiratorial effluent sloshing around the septic tank better known as social media. Once found only in the dark recesses of the internet, on chatrooms favoured by sad young men in basements, this conspiracy stuff is now across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. It’s in your WhatsApp groups for heaven’s sake.
Worryingly, it’s only one click away from a message bearing reasonable opinion or detailing an actual news event. It’s the sneering CAPS LOCK reply from a username with too many flags, hashtags and digits in their bio, laughing in the face of notions of truth and objectivity. It’s the online equivalent of those ridiculous BBC interviews that must offer up an ill-informed, rabid, old coot to counter the academic rigour of a scientist who is an expert on climate change. Because ‘balance’.
On twitter this week I came across an infographic that connected conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, dressed up in a suitably 1950s public information typeface, in a futile attempt to create a grand narrative of deep-state interference, with COVID-19 at its centre. I won’t feature it here BECAUSE IT’S NUTS. Contact me and I’ll send you a copy, but don’t blame me if you lose twenty points of IQ overnight.
The apparent work of too many Haribo and Ritalin-fueled late nights, the infographic’s massive web of conspiracies has at its centre the words ‘COVID-5G’, below ‘Bill Gates.’ All the usual suspects are there: ‘Nazis’ (top right), ‘Enslavement of Humanity by AI’ (bottom-right), ‘Global Vaccine Programs’ (middleish).
It includes guests at what must be the most challenging fantasy dinner party ever: Goebbels, Henry Kissinger, George Soros and Edward Bernays. And David Icke. I could not see Peter Ustinov, although his humour and wisdom would be sorely missed around that appetite-suppressing dinner table.
When hot takes go cold
“Whatever”, I hear you say. “Have you seen the internet lately? It’s a cesspool of misinformation, madness and misogyny.” You’re right. And I appreciate the argument around free speech, and the inalienable right it provides for anyone to make a total arse of himself (sic.) by sharing a piss poor opinion on Twitter.
But when weapons-grade bullshit on Facebook makes a connection between 5G and COVID-19, where there is none, it gets dangerous. The bout of 5G mast burning seen in the UK over the last few months — a new national sport in the absence of football or cricket — was fueled by conspiracy theories on social media, not lockdown boredom. Yes, idiots burned down telecoms masts in the middle of a global pandemic, making it more difficult for ambulances to reach those that needed them. Ensuring those calls to ‘bring out your dead’ fell on deaf ears.
As the Web of Bullshit I happened upon this week demonstrates, conspiracy theorists like to show how everything is connected. As if everything is part of a wider planetary plan of enslavement. This, of course, lacks credibility for the simple reason that it bestows far too much competence in the various systems of Government around the world. You know, the people that often struggle to get trains to run on time, or fill potholes in the road.
Whatever, the bastard combination of a new telecommunication spectrum, 5G, and a particularly nasty virus makes total sense to the conspiracists, even if it strikes everyone else as unhinged. For them, it’s “a-ha!” For most people, it’s “hahahahahaha!”
In their search for connections, the tinfoil hat wearers must constantly look to the future. And that’s where we can expect to see the next exercise in Batshittery that will impact on public health and safety. One theory circulating on social media this week connected the (still-outstanding) COVID-19 vaccination with the Gates Foundation, microchips and human infertility. I kid you not.
Fitting their madness tidily inside Twitter’s 280 characters, they claimed Gates Foundation-funded Coronavirus vaccines would secretly introduce nanochips into the bloodstream, rendering unwanted human beings infertile. To which my initial thought was to welcome the microchips and encourage them to wipe out an increasingly stupid species that has outstayed its stay on a planet that demands at least some common sense.
Cleaning up, or tidying up?
For too long social media platforms have been able to evade responsibility by sheltering under Section 230 of the USA’s Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996. This abdicates computer service providers from any responsibility for the content posted to their platforms, while also removing any civil liability on their part.
Section 230 is, quite literally, a Get Out Of Jail card. It explains why a US court upheld immunity for a social networking site accused of gross negligence for failing to institute safety measures to protect minors, the case centring on the sexual assault of a minor following communication over MySpace.
The protection provided by Section 230 is a luxury not provided to newspapers, TV stations or just about any other publisher or content provider. It is this same freedom that allows anonymous users of social media platforms to post corrosive and damaging content that, even if not illegal, poisons debate, stokes panic and drives people apart.
And while some platforms are slowly beginning to wake up to their responsibility — Twitter recently flagging one of President Trump’s tweets as potentially misleading, for example — others seem only too willing to carry misinformation on their platforms.
Facebook, in particular, seems almost blind to its divisive role, the misinformation it carries, and the abuse of data it has made possible by firms such as the disgraced Cambridge Analytica. The many scandals it has scraped through don’t even seem to have impacted on its profitability: at the time of writing Facebook’s share price is near its all-time high.
But given growing the frustration with Big Tech, and social media platforms, in particular, regulation is on the cards. So if social media platforms don’t want regulations imposed, they need to tidy up after themselves. Some of the misinformation they carry is clearly nonsense — witness the sterility nanochips — and can be dismissed as much. But far too much still cuts through, infecting opinion and offending reason. And, even if you can stomach such a foul diet, it still makes for a dismal and hateful user experience. Hell, much of the content is designed with this purpose in mind, weaponised by armies of bots employed by those with a political axe to grind.
The now-discredited theories of the anti-vax movement found greater traction on social rather than traditional media. The social media posts that now discourage readers from having a coronavirus vaccination, once available, present a genuine threat if the virus is to be contained. Mass vaccination only works if sufficient numbers of people are vaccinated. Limiting the numbers of those that will agree to be vaccinated, by stoking fear and creating panic, is criminal.
Although the Black Death did much of its damage in eight short years, outbreaks of the same plague rolled on until the nineteenth century, continuing to cause misery and death. Choosing between public health and the freedom to share batshit ideas on the internet should not be difficult.
Postscript: Shortly after this article was published, Twitter announced that it had permanently banned Katie Hopkins from its platform. As recently as May 2020, Hopkins had argued that the Government had “played” the public by recommending the wearing of facemasks. Well done, Jack Dorsey.