We all have our theories and views about how the world works and how different actors deal with each other on the domestic and the international level. Some of us base these views on what they see directly without assuming any hidden actions behind the curtains. Others, on the other hand, have reasons to believe that there is more than meets the eye and that there are certain powers-that-be controlling the world and influencing its events behind closed doors.
In other words, they have their own conspiracy theories about how the world works.
According to European academics Michael Butter and Peter Knight, conspiracy theories are narratives that assume that a group of evil agents, the conspirators, are secretly controlling events and developments. Conspiracy theories have three assumptions in common. First, nothing happens by accident, and everything is done by the conspirators behind the curtains. Second, nothing is what it seems; you have to look beneath the surface to know the real truth. Third, everything is connected, and events that may seem unrelated to each other are actually deeply interlocked.
A conspiracy theory can differ from one region of the world to another, depending on the political circumstances. Each person propagating one considers himself to know the real truth behind events. Conspiracy theories become popular in times of crises and uncertainties, and they are mostly believed by people who have a problem dealing with uncertainties and ambiguities.
It has therefore been natural for conspiracy theories to cast their shadows on the most influential event that has changed the world over the past couple of years: the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who believe in Covid-19 conspiracy theories have blamed evil forces for being behind the spread of the virus and/or have been pushing for vaccination against it for their own sinister purposes.
Like most conspiracy theories, the Covid-19 conspiracy theories dismiss the science in favour of some extreme, outlandish claims. Furthermore, because this is about a disease that has affected us all, such conspiracy theories, and people’s acceptance of them and acting upon them, may actually cause a delay in eradicating the virus, because these conspiracy theories cause people to doubt the effectiveness, or even the very purpose, of the vaccines that aim to eradicate the disease.
Nevertheless, there is hope that these Covid-19 conspiracy theories can be reversed, if we all improve the way we deal with people who believe in them. Before I proceed, there are a few points which I would like to emphasise regarding my own personal views.
First, I am not dismissing all conspiracy theories outright. Indeed, human history is full of conspiracies and hidden agendas. The overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953 was a real CIA conspiracy. The Israeli Mossad did plan a series of terrorist attacks against US facilities in Cairo in the 1950s to ruin Cairo-Washington relations (the so-called Lavon Affair). The Tripartite Attack against Egypt in 1956 was a real conspiracy against former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser that was secretly planned in Sèvres just outside Paris.
The CIA did conduct mind-control experiments on people (the so-called Manchurian Candidate conspiracy), although these experiments failed. The US government did have plans to orchestrate acts of terrorism inside the United States to use them as an excuse to attack Cuba and its leader Fidel Castro in the 1960s, although this plan was never actually implemented. The CIA was indeed involved in drug-trafficking to finance certain militias in South America in the 1980s. Secret societies like the Illuminati and the Freemasons have existed for hundreds of years, although we can disagree over the extent of their influence on global events.
I am not against believing in conspiracies, provided that there is evidence to support them. What I do have a problem with, however, is propagating conspiracy theories based on myths and rumours, instead of solid scientific and historical evidence.
Second, I am not a medical doctor. I do not have a degree in medicine or health science, and I am not qualified to discuss these claims. Scientists and medics have done a much better job at debunking these myths and conspiracy theories than I ever could.
Third, even though I am defending science and logic here, I have not been vaccinated myself (at least not yet). This is due to a certain condition that prevents me from having the vaccination for now.
Having said these things, I will now present my views about the goofy conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and its vaccines, the sad consequences of these conspiracy theories, and the useful things that we can do to talk the Covid-19 conspiracy theorists out of their potentially harmful beliefs.
GOOFY THEORIES: Vaccine-related conspiracy theories existed even before Covid-19.
For decades, there has been a widespread belief in the West that vaccinations, especially the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination, can cause autism among children. This was based on a scientific paper by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published in a respectable scientific journal in 1998. The article caused a great deal of controversy. Years later, it was discovered that Wakefield had not followed scientific or ethical methods in writing his article. He has since had his medical licence revoked and been banned from practicing medicine.
There have been other similar conspiracy theories claiming that “Big Pharma” was concealing the real data about the hazardous effects of vaccinations and bribing government officials to allow and even promote them among children. These anti-vaccination conspiracy theories existed even before the Covid-19 outbreak.
In fact, health-related conspiracy theories have existed for centuries. They happened, for example, when the plague, or Black Death, spread in Europe and wiped out a third of the population in the 14th century. Due to widespread hatred of the Jews in Europe at the time, Christian Europeans accused the Jews of being behind the spread of the Black Death by poisoning the wells from which the Christians were drinking. Needless to say, this has been scientifically disproven, and modern science now knows that the Black Death spread through rats and fleas.
Conspiracy theories have been abundant as a result of the outbreak of Covid-19 and the promotion of the vaccines against it. These conspiracy theories, and claims about the hazards of the vaccines, have caused “vaccine hesitation”, or the fear of having a vaccine due to such claims. Even before the current Covid-19 outbreak, studies showed that parents who were subject to such conspiracy theories, whether from social media or other sources, were less likely to vaccinate their children.
Several conspiracy theories were being thrown around as Covid-19 started to spread all over the world and cause lockdowns and deaths. Former US president Donald Trump and his supporters implied that the pandemic was a hoax led by the anti-Trump “deep state” aiming to undermine the US economy and halt the gains it had achieved under Trump’s management.
Other Americans said that Covid-19 was a Chinese bioweapon that had originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Others said that the virus was being transmitted by 4G and 5G communication technologies. The Chinese version of the conspiracy theories, on the other hand, said that Covid-19 was an American bioweapon that had been released in China, but had backfired and had eventually hit the US itself.
Needless to say, all these conspiracy theories are not based on hard evidence, but on personal views and on imagining a link between unrelated events, like the timing of Covid-19 and the timing of the 2020 presidential elections in the United States.
Conspiracy theories have hit the Covid-19 vaccination process as well. Conspiracies about the vaccines have revolved around two main beliefs. The first is that the vaccination, or the cure, has existed for a long time, but the large multinational pharmaceutical corporations, or so-called “Big Pharma”, hid it until the situation became critical in order to raise vaccination prices and make more profit.
The second is that “Big Pharma” is pushing plans for mass mandatory vaccination in order to sell the vaccines and make profits. There has also been the conspiracy theory that the vaccines contain microchips enabling the intelligence agencies to put citizens under surveillance and mind control and that this particular scheme was masterminded by US billionaire Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
There have also been claims that the vaccines make you magnetic, that they alter your DNA, that they do not work, and that they can actually kill. This “plandemic” (a combination of the words “plan” and “pandemic”), according to conspiracy theorists and those who follow them, is all a scheme by the deep state, “Big Pharma”, and business magnates.
These conspiracy theories, which sound goofy due to their far-fetched claims and lack of solid scientific evidence, could have sad consequences on those who believe in them and on society in general. They could delay or even prevent the public’s acceptance of the real medical treatment of Covid-19, thus delaying the eradication of the pandemic.
SAD THEORIES: These conspiracy theories reach millions of people through social media. Influencers then take these claims and spread them, and their followers listen to them without questioning or double-checking.
Such conspiracy theories have led to the rise of anti-vaccination groups, or “anti-vaxers”, in several countries in the West. These groups promote conspiracy theories to discourage vaccinations.
Former US president Trump did not want to harm the economic boost the American economy had experienced during his administration, thus weakening his chances of winning the 2020 presidential elections. He therefore went to great lengths to dismiss the Covid-19 pandemic as a common, non-dangerous flu epidemic that would not cause deaths and should not force people to change their lifestyles. He tweeted that the Democrats and the liberal media in the US were “doing everything possible” to make Covid-19 “look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible”, and then claimed that the “USA is in great shape”.
Needless to say, his actions were a factor in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans of Covid-19. He also made other claims that dismissed the real science behind Covid-19. In fact, he appeared wearing a mask only a few times during the pandemic, and the vast majority of his public appearances were without a mask.
Among the controversies that Trump caused was his apparent claim that Covid-19 could be cured if people injected disinfectants like bleach into their bodies. To be fair, Trump did not explicitly recommend ingesting a disinfectant like bleach. What Trump actually did was say that disinfectants are very effective in killing the virus on surfaces, wondering if this could be applied to the human body as well.
“Is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning, because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me. So, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute. That’s pretty powerful,” Trump said.
The wording of his remarks led some companies and state agencies to issue warnings about ingesting disinfectants. For example, the makers of certain disinfectant products said in statements that “under no circumstances” should their products be used in the human body. Nevertheless, some Americans were hospitalised, and at least one died, after they injected cleansing agents into their bodies based on Trump’s statements. He never apologised for them, even though he knew the effects of his statements on his loyal and often poorly educated followers.
Another factor that added to the anti-vax movement has been that a percentage of people who have died of the Delta variant of Covid-19 had received one or two shots of the vaccine. While experts said that this was indeed a fact, they counter-argued that deaths among those who were vaccinated were much less than among those who were not vaccinated.
Such conspiracy theories, and claims about the hazards of the vaccines, also cause “vaccine hesitation”, which is the fear of having a vaccine due to such claims. It is indeed sad that people base life decisions on rumours and unfounded conspiracy theories instead of scientific and medical evidence.
What are the useful things that we as individuals can do when we are faced in our daily lives with people who believe in such conspiracy theories?
USEFUL THEORIES: The good news is that experts on conspiracy theories and their spread offer a series of useful steps you can follow to debate a conspiracy theorist effectively and perhaps even eventually convince him to give up his beliefs without getting involved in a shouting match or losing a friendship.
According to Knight, it is very hard to argue a committed conspiracy theorist out of his beliefs using logic and facts. The long-term solution is to improve the education system and to increase awareness of what social-media spreads, to not believe everything you read, and to fact check what you hear and see on the media.
Do not get angry or get involved in a shouting match with conspiracy theorists, because this will just make them angrier and cling more to their beliefs. Do not bombard them with logic or scientific evidence straight away, as this will simply not work. They will simply dismiss what you say and continue to cling to the beliefs they have. This is because conspiracy theories, and those who believe in them, do not depend on facts and information. Rather, they depend on deep feelings, emotions, and perhaps even fears not based on science or logic.
According to psychologist Jovan Byford, a lecturer at the Open University in the UK, conspiracy theories often have a strong emotional dimension. “They are not just about right and wrong,” he told the BBC, “but are underpinned by feelings of resentment, anger, and indignation over how the world works.” People who believe in a conspiracy theory will claim that the ideas they believe in are based on their own research, even though their research is usually based on biased, unscientific sources (whether social media or TV hosts with certain biases).
Therefore, instead of using facts when you deal with a conspiracy theorist, perhaps it would be more effective if you addressed his emotions and feelings. People seem receptive to you when you use the same ways in which they may have been manipulated, said Sander van der Linden of Cambridge University in the UK, an expert on the spread of misinformation and ways to stop it.
For example, people who spread conspiracies depend heavily on provoking other people’s emotions, telling them that the fact that they believe in such conspiracies is a sign of high intelligence, a willingness to think outside the box, an independent personality, and even personal superiority. Therefore, if you want to convince a conspiracy theorist to give up his ideas, then perhaps you should use these techniques, too.
Instead of being confrontational and bombarding them with lots and lots of facts and evidence, you should, first, use empathy and show that you understand the fears and concerns which have led them to believe the beliefs they have. Praise their intelligence and express your admiration that they have principles that are they enthusiastically defending. Do not shame them for what they believe and do not be dismissive. Instead, try to find middle ground where you can both agree and start from there.
Try asking them questions which could make them realise the contradictions or the fallacies in their beliefs. You will, of course, have to use logic and evidence, but present it to them gently and calmly without offending them and show that you respect them even as you do not share their beliefs. Finally, do not expect quick results, because it will take a long time for a conspiracy theorist to reverse ideas in which he strongly believes.
According to experts, this is the useful and effective recipe you should follow when you are faced with a conspiracy theorist who strongly believes in his ideas and is stubbornly defending them with all his power.
Now that you have reached the end of this article, I strongly suggest that you do not just take everything I have written for granted. Instead, I advise you to fact-check everything I have written. I think that this would be a good first step for all of us to combat conspiracy theories based on rumours and myths instead of science and facts.
The writer is a political science lecturer at the British University in Egypt, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, UK.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.