COVID-19 and ‘Conspiracy Theory’: Who Decides What’s ‘Misinformation’?, Part 1 of 6

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The media dismisses any questioning of the lockdown measures as “conspiracy theory,” but we are the final judge of how the authorities managed the COVID-19 response.

During this time of COVID-19, the term “conspiracy theory” has been bandied about too casually by mainstream media sources. It is true, though, that we live in an “age of misinformation,” a time when it is legitimately hard to tell what exactly is true and what isn’t. But during this time, how do we make sense of the non-stop flood of contradictory COVID-19 information? And what do we make of alleged COVID-19 conspiracies?

But seldom do the media acknowledge that “conspiracy theory” can become weaponized, the charge becoming a means to stifle free inquiry into a topic. Who decides between valid information versus misinformation? And who decides what distinguishes a conspiracy theory from real political or financial agenda?

The mainstream media, often acting in concert with business or government, have decided it is their responsibility to be the official purveyors of news, the anointed ones to tell you what is authoritative versus what is not; and they have decided to tell you what stories constitute conspiracy theories.

These COVID-19 conspiracies include:

    1. The COVID-19 cases result from health effects from 5G wireless technology, as opposed to a virus.

    2. The virus responsible for COVID-19 was bioengineered in a Wuhan lab and was either accidentally or intentionally released.

    3. COVID-19 vaccines contain “Satan’s microchips.”

The key question here is: who, ultimately, is the decider of what constitutes a conspiracy theory? The commonality in the above is that deciding what to think about the above stories has been decided a priori for us. We are presented with an illusion of choice in which we are emotionally pressured to join with the author’s views.

So, as news consumers, how are we to know what to think when certain information is dismissed entirely as “conspiracy theory”? Sometimes a story is unfounded, but sometimes the story reveals wrongdoings are hiding behind the shadows.

Before accepting the point of view of an author or a media authority, there are important questions that need to be considered. We present these questions in the form of a framework that can help you make sense of the charge of conspiracy theory.

By using this framework, you will be able to distinguish between honest reporting and propaganda, and the better you will be able to voice your own commentary. It is the public’s right to voice its concerns, and it is the citizen’s duty to ensure the government serves the people.

What is a Conspiracy?

We need to carefully examine the meanings of the terms conspiracy and conspiracy theory to tease out their actual definitions from any loaded emotional connotations. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, to conspire means to “to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement.”

More generally, a conspiracy then is an “agreement among conspirators.” Then, finally, a conspiracy theory is “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a conspiracy.” It is worth keeping in mind Merriam-Webster’s second definition, “to act in harmony toward a common end” – a conspiracy may not necessarily involve illegal activities.

Often, there are motivations for conspiracy. These could include personal or economic gain, the advancement of ideology (for example, to advance the ideology of Communism or to spread democracy), or the belief that one’s actions are best for society.

It should be worth nothing that conspiracies happen all the time. One need not look far in the news to find such examples; numerous scandals have been reported in the media, i.e., the Enron Scandal, the Theranos Scandal, the Bernie Madoff Ponzi Scheme, and Facebook Data Privacy Scandal. In these cases, the events fit the definition of conspiracy: a group of people colluding in secret for economic gain. Each of these conspiracies was investigated and exposed by the mainstream media.

The Weaponization of Conspiracy Theory

Beyond its logical definition, the term “conspiracy theory” has a negative connotation. It is not often acknowledged by those who use it that the term itself can be weaponized to prevent critical lines of inquiry of inconvenient truths in public. This weaponization can be observed in Wikipedia’s definition, which explicitly states that the “appeal to a conspiracy is based on prejudice or insufficient evidence,” but this is a tautological fallacy as the label of “conspiracy theory” impedes the necessary effort to gather the very evidence needed to determine whether the theory is substantiated or not.

As author Jovan Byford states in his book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, “‘conspiracy theory’ is not a neutral label used merely to describe a certain type of explanation. It is an evaluative term with significant pejorative connotations. To allude to an account as a ‘conspiracy theory’ is to make a judgment about its epistemic status; it is a way of branding an explanation untrue or insinuating that it is based on insufficient evidence, superstition or prejudice.”

Power-holders and establishment interests utilize the weaponization of “conspiracy theory” to shape narratives that benefit their collective interests. Sometimes these interests benefit from the status quo, and they resist changes from the public to change the status quo. Sometimes, in the Iraq War and Vietnam War, power interests benefit from building the case for necessity for predetermined actions they want to take. In both cases, power interests seek to stifle public inquiry into matters which affect their interests.

An important use of power in society is creating narratives that the public believes, thereby creating a rational justification for the power that dominant interests or establishment interests hold their wield. Thus, the use of power builds on itself. The more people who believe in a given narrative, the more power it lends to those whose interests it serves.

The weaponization of “conspiracy theory” plays an important role in scientific controversies, stifling legitimate but inconvenient scientific inquiry. Academic institutions, corporations, and existing scientists are often invested in current paradigms of scientific thinking.

These players have an incentive to control narratives for their benefit. For example, they can protect existing revenue lines by exaggerating the benefits of medical treatments or drugs they offer, diminish the harms from certain medical treatments or drugs, or dismiss alternative non-pharmaceutical approaches to treating medical conditions.

Even the label of “conspiracy theorist” can work as a form of character assassination that seeks to discredit scientists or independent researchers willing to explore or advocate for an alternative perspective. Being labeled as a “conspiracy theorist” can make it harder for a researcher to secure funding for their research.

Since the term ‘conspiracy theory’ can be weaponized as a means to control your thinking, when confronted with it, you need the means to evaluate the information and distinguish honest reporting from propaganda.” The following section presents a framework to help you do just that.

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