By M Dentith
When the Prime Minister, Jacinda Arden, and the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, announced that COVID-19 was once again in the community, certain people started asking awkward questions. Gerry Brownlee, Deputy Leader of the National Party, claimed there was a series of “interesting facts”, leaving it up to the people listening to tease out his implication that the government had been keeping things from the public. Billy Te Kahika, Jr. (AKA Billy TK), leader of the New Zealand Public Party (part of Advance New Zealand) claimed he had not only predicted the announcement, but that it was part-and-parcel of a coordinated takeover of the country; the COVID-19 pandemic was simply a front to erode public liberties to further enshrine socialism both here and abroad.
The good news is that it does not seem—on the face of it—that the “dog whistling” in which the National Party has recently engaged, or the explicit conspiracy theories being spread by people like Billy TK are particularly popular. Polls indicate that the public broadly supports the coalition government’s COVID-19 pandemic response, and public condemnation of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 is easy to find.
Now, it is useful to note that (virtually) no one in the academic debate about belief in conspiracy theories denies that conspiracies occur. People in positions of power have covered up accidents, plotted to hide their sneaky behaviour, and sometimes even sold wars overseas using disinformation. It can be rational to believe particular conspiracy theories in a range of cases (as I have argued extensively elsewhere; see, for example, the edited collection “Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously” published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2018). There is nothing about something being a conspiracy theory that makes it automatically irrational to believe. Rather, the problem with the COVID-19 conspiracy theories we are seeing is that they are what philosopher Brian L. Keeley labels “mature unwarranted conspiracy theories”; they are examples of theories that have failed to gain adequate positive evidence over time, and thus the longer people keep propounding them, the more reason we have to be suspicious of them (see Keeley’s 1999 paper “Of Conspiracy Theories”, published in the Journal of Philosophy).
Part of the problem for the various COVID-19 conspiracy theories we are seeing in play now is that they are neither new nor novel. Rather, they are examples of conspiracy theory archetypes that have been found to be wanting time and time again. From claims of secret, deep state or one world government plots to use a crisis to bring about global communism, to theories that the crisis does not even exist, the various COVID-19 conspiracy theories in play today have replaced previous worries—like claims about the environmental movement being crypto-communism—with the pandemic and the novel coronavirus behind it.
It is an open question as to just how many people believe these theories, and thus what the effect of belief in these theories turns out to be. Research from the US indicates that outside of social media and the interests of journalists, most people probably have no idea these conspiracy theories exist (as we have seen from recent Pew Research Center polls). However, it is also the case—particularly in the build-up to an election in Aotearoa New Zealand—that these conspiracy theories might turn out to be influential nonetheless. We can think of this in two ways.
The first issue concerns strong versus weak belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Not everyone who espouses a conspiracy theory is necessarily convinced that it is true. An awful lot of our beliefs are weak, in the sense that we find things plausible without being strongly or totally convinced by them. Sometimes we entertain ideas because we heard them from someone we respect, or because they fit with our political leanings. On occasion something weird happens and—in the absence of a compelling narrative or explanation of it—we entertain suspicions of what might really be going on. But being suspicious doesn’t mean we buy into the theory; it just means that until we get more information, or a more trusted source speaks to us, we’re willing to at least consider alternative views.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an interesting example of this, simply because of just how extraordinary it is. The world seems to have changed in the space of a couple of months, and in a fundamental way. It is not unreasonable to ask in the face of that, “Why?” It is also understandable that some people might also think, “And for whose benefit?”
The explanation of the pandemic and the various responses to it are, after all, complex. The origin of the virus; the failure of the Chinese state to contain it; the role of testing and contact tracing; the arguments around lockdown levels (which differ from country to country); each of these on their own can be hard to fathom (see, for example, opinion writers in this country and their unqualified hot takes on epidemiology), but taken as a group it is understandable that many people find it hard to comprehend both how we got to this state, and also the government’s response to all of this.
For some this is bad enough, but once we add in how the longer the pandemic continues, the more issues it will expose (such as healthcare provision discrepancies locally and internationally; worries about the weighting of economic vs. health-led responses, etc.) the information landscape which makes sense of why our government is acting the way it does becomes all the harder for a number of people to comprehend.
This is to say that the extraordinary state we are now in, especially compared to how normal things appeared to be at the start of the year will have people confused, asking questions, and expressing suspicions. It is reasonable, then, to expect that some people will turn to notions of conspiracy to try and understand the how and why of it all. This does not mean they necessarily believe the conspiracy theories they hear about the pandemic; it just means that they are trying to make sense of the situation. But when enough people start asking such questions, this can lead to the media narrative shifting to being mostly about their concerns, even if they turn out not to be all that representative of the populace as a whole.
This brings us to the second concern. Even if it turns out a lot of the people who are suspicious that there might be a conspiracy occurring around the pandemic are not strongly committed to their conspiracy theories, even weak belief in them can be of concern. After all, anything which makes someone think twice about wearing a mask, engaging in social distancing, or even washing their hands properly makes things more difficult for the rest of us. Refraining from acting as if COVID-19 is a real or serious threat increases the risk of community transmission of the novel coronavirus.
This is where the worry about those people with strong belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories comes into play. People who are merely suspicious that there is something weird about the pandemic might act as if COVID-19 is not a real health issue. But for those people who truly believe the pandemic is a “plandemic” (that is, either a fake pandemic or a real pandemic which is being used to usher in a new world order), their resultant behaviour really does increase the risk of undermining our response to the resurgence of community transmission of COVID-19 here-and-now.
This is why the various feints towards expressing conspiracy theories about the pandemic that we have seen from political parties like National are concerning; they provide the appearance of legitimacy for these views. When Gerry Brownlee, for example, asks leading questions which imply that something fishy is going on, and his leader, Judith Collins, fails to call him on it, this makes people who are weakly or strongly committed to these kinds of conspiracy theories think they are worth taking seriously. Gerry wouldn’t be raising those kinds of questions unless National had good reason to think something was up, surely.
Now, it seems that if recent polling is to be believed, most people appear to trust the government and its messaging about the pandemic. It seems the number of people who believe these conspiracy theories (either weakly or strongly) is likely to be small. At the same time, we shouldn’t be dismissive of the people who believe them. Many COVID-19 conspiracy theorists are not necessarily clones of Billy TK. Sometimes they are simply hapless Gerry Brownlees, confused by the complexity of the pandemic and the government response to it.
If you ask me how we should respond to these Gerries, then—as a philosopher—I will simply point you towards work being done in sociology, social psychology, and those other domains in which we measure beliefs and their effects. But the vital lesson of the philosophical work on conspiracy theory remains: we should never deny that belief in conspiracy theories can be rational. Telling people they are wrong simply because they believe some theory about a conspiracy is counterproductive when we still live in a world in which conspiracies occur.
Rather, we should focus on why these particular conspiracy theories fail the sniff test. Oftentimes that requires admitting that some of what motivates or leads people to believe these conspiracy theories is worth taking seriously. There is nothing wrong in admitting that the situation we find ourselves is complex and often confusing. There have also been communication failures both locally and internationally, and some of these do look like officials covering up mistakes that were made. It is reasonable, at the very least, to suspect conspiracies in cases like these. So, by admitting that some of what grounds these conspiracy theories is worth considering, you can move the discussion on to why you think this particular conspiracy theory is not the right explanation. That way you bring the person along with you, rather than (figuratively) hitting them over the head with “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” Indeed, perhaps the solution here is talking about how the world was not prepared for a pandemic, even though we thought we were, and how this has led to the situation getting very messy indeed. Sometimes admitting that we are still coming up with the answers is part of the solution.
M Dentith is a Teaching Fellow at Waikato University. He is an expert in conspiracy theories.