COVID-19 and ‘Conspiracy Theory’: Six Questions to Assess the Claim of Conspiracy Theory, Part 2 of 6

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Typically, when confronted with the claim of a ‘conspiracy theory’ in the news media, the embedded message is that “we are the authorities, and we have done the thinking for you – just stop thinking about this now.” To counter this, we need to apply our critical thinking, and the following framework can help.

1. Are there any uses of logical fallacies or rhetorical devices present in defending the “official narrative”?

Critical to assessing credibility is to be aware of logical fallacies and rhetorical devices used to influence your beliefs:

Ad hominem arguments: attacking the character, motives, or attributes of the person or group bearing a message without attacking the substance of the logical argument. Ad-hominem attacks are often made with pejorative labels, i.e., racist, anti-vaxxer, anti-science, Communist, etc.

Red herring/deflection: brings up tangential information that deliberately misleads or distracts from the important question at hand.

Strawman: distortion of the opposing party’s actual positions to give the impression of refuting or defeating an opponent’s position.

Non-sequitur: from the Latin phrase “it does not follow,” this fallacy involves stating a series of facts and then deriving a conclusion that does not follow from those facts.

Cherry-picking: bringing up data or cases which support a particular position while ignoring significant data that contradicts the position.

Begging the question: use of circular reasoning, or presuming the conclusion to be true, instead of providing the necessary support for it.

Appeal to authority: claiming the truth of a premise by citing the testimony of an authority figure instead of presenting actual evidence for it.

Lie by omission: lying by either omitting certain facts or by failing to correct a misconception.

2. What are the article’s assertions that the author assumes “every reasonable person must believe”?

Disentangling the half-truths and assumptions in the overall message are critical to understanding the core of propaganda that weaponizes conspiracy theory. Also critical are the assumptions that the author makes about what everyone should believe; for example, “any reasonable person must vaccinate” or “any reasonable person must listen to their doctor.”

Both of these are examples of the begging the question fallacy: if you do the prescribed actions, then you are “reasonable”; otherwise, you are not. These also fall under the ad hominem fallacy, as there is the implicit message that anyone who fails to take the given action is unreasonable.

You should also be aware of “peer pressure” techniques to get you to conform to the dominant view. These can include the appeal to authority, and a similar variant, appeal to the consensus belief. Of course, the number of people who believe a given idea, even if a large majority, is not an actual indication of its truth.

3. Who benefits from the official narrative?

The official narrative is the one that predominates in the mainstream discourse, propagated both by government officials and the mainstream media. It is useful to identity powerholders and/or establishment interests and imagines how they might benefit from the official narrative. For example, the defense industry is a player that benefits from the sale of munitions, and it has an incentive to lobby for continued investment in military technology.

4. How accurate is the portrayal of the alternative narrative, and whose interests are harmed by it?

First, we must identify how accurately the alternative narrative is being portrayed. Sometimes, the alternative narrative is deliberately presented as a strawman to make the dominant narrative appear more favorable. For example, as will be examined later, the blaming of COVID-19 deaths on 5G technology is a strawman that attempts to hide legitimate concerns regarding 5G behind a more questionable charge.

There is another variant to the strawman argument to be aware of. Oftentimes, there are various gradients or possibilities to an alternative narrative. One trick is to deliberately select the most extreme or implausible of these alternatives and focus solely on refuting that version. We will later examine a piece on the COVID-19 vaccine that utilizes this pattern.

Second, we must judge whose interests are harmed by the alternative narratives and to what extent. When the harms of smoking were becoming more widely known, the tobacco companies had numerous financial incentives to deny or downplay these concerns. Similarly, health concerns about wireless technology would hurt the wireless market’s growth and hurt the technology providers of such equipment.

Some useful questions to consider are the following. How large in dollars is the market relevant to the dominant players’ interests? Does the alternative narrative damage any existing revenue lines of existing players? Does the alternative narrative change the environment in a way that would hurt the existing players? And does the alternative narrative damage the ability of the existing players to influence society?

5. How credible is the alternative narrative?

This is where you judge the alternative narrative’s credibility by examining the actual arguments used to support their position. Weaponized pieces work by convincing you that the probability of the alternative narrative is so low that it cannot be reasonable. It helps to question the assumptions made by the piece and to clarify the limits of such assumptions.

6. How much questioning is permitted or how much intimidation is used against those that object to the official narrative?

Biased pieces and propaganda pieces can be distinguished by their vitriol level aimed against those objecting to the official narrative. It is critical to ask yourself just how much the piece allows the reader to make their own judgment versus intimidating the reader into accepting the author’s views. 

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