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Kathy Sheridan: Covid pandemic a fertile ground for conspiracists, zealots and bigots

Polls show high percentage of populations harbouring belief in conspiracy theories

A pandemic is not an essential ingredient for conspiracy theorists, fantasists, zealots and bigots but it helps. On a Florida beach last weekend, when the state was breaking Covid-19 case records, a sunbather declared that the virus had been brought back from China by Joe and Hunter Biden. Why? To bring down Donald Trump, of course. Where had he learned that? "Just by being alive," he replied indignantly. "I'm 63 years old."

A bewildering number of apparently normal people will agree with that man who learns things “just by being alive”. The views of the Trumped, ignorant and deluded have been normalised and mainstreamed.

In March, nearly a third of Americans told the Pew Research Centre that Covid-19 had been created in a lab. Another quarter were on the fence about it. That represents more than half the population of the United States.

In England, a survey of conspiracy beliefs about coronavirus found that a shocking 50 per cent showed some degree of belief in such thinking. Of them, according to the survey published by Cambridge University Press, one in 10 showed “very high” levels of belief.


Conspiracy mentality

The survey’s authors noted other disturbing traits common to those people. They found that “higher levels of coronavirus conspiracy thinking were associated with less adherence to all government guidelines and less willingness to take diagnostic or antibody tests or to be vaccinated”. That figures. More seriously, they found that such ideas “were also associated with paranoia, general vaccination conspiracy beliefs, climate change conspiracy belief, a conspiracy mentality, and distrust in institutions and professions”. And not surprisingly, the same people were more likely to share their opinions.

No doubt there is a similar Irish survey somewhere of people who became self-described experts "just by being alive". The nearest to it may be the numbers who reject vaccinations. Last March when fear of Covid-19 was at a zenith, hundreds of thousands were being laid off work and the economy in ruins, a third of Irish people still said that they would not avail of a not-yet-developed vaccine for a killer virus for themselves or their children. The percentage in the survey, carried out by Maynooth University and Trinity College, puts us on a par with Americans consulted in a US poll conducted in May by Reuters-Ipsos. So, not so different, then.

Dr Anthony Fauci, face of the US pandemic and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases whose optimism about an early vaccine has raised the hopes of millions, is seriously concerned about the disinformation from the anti-vaccination movement.

“There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country – an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking.”

This is why Florida beach man who learns things “just by being alive” is much less benign than he looks in his togs. Ignorant, gullible, never happier than when he has a conspiracy theory to spew or a platform on which to rage and defame people with his deluded theories, nudged along by smarter figures he is quite unable to name.

A version of that, constantly slithering through Irish social media, excelled itself over the past week. A scan through tweets, retweets and “likes” of Twitter accounts using the hashtag Roderic O’Gorman, for example, reveals overlapping groups of conspiracy theorists, racists, “patriots”, homophobes, general-purpose hate/rage merchants, Nigel Farage homages, Trump rants on “far-left fascism”, “the truth about the corona scam” and so much more. Most of them are stoutly anonymous, of course, and all of it is profoundly harmful. The clever ones who disingenuously opened up the allegations against O’Gorman knew well the depths of toxicity being dredged by summoning forth this ignorant circus.

The clever ones know full well the history of centuries-old falsehoods and persecution inflicted on minorities – such as the bizarre blood libel against Jews, for example, and the vile, thoroughly debunked allegation that children are not safe around gay men. They are clever enough at least to intuit the reasons why targets refuse to rise to the bait unless driven to distraction. Ask yourself: what reasonable person volunteers a response to every exhausting, poisonous, defamatory trope of a kind that has been directed at him all his life and the sad, stunted lives of generations before him? Roderic O’Gorman has ample grounds to discover real identities and sue.

Exhausted victims rarely do.

Baiting squads

The result is that people happily join a baiting squad because they have nothing to lose. Some are innocents who haven’t the inclination to seek out the facts for themselves (while calling everyone else“sheeple”); some are lonely, seeking validation through a group or cause (impossible to believe that the abusers of Madeleine McCann’s parents knew exactly what they were doing); some are vicious, angry zealots on a mission to disrupt, distort and destroy for the hell of it. None of it, obviously, is consequence-free.

Back in the US, social-media messaging urging citizens to reject vaccination has roughly tripled since the pandemic began. It is now driving an increase in public suspicion of vaccines, according to the Public Good Projects (PGP). Prior to the pandemic, much of the anti-vaccine messaging came from concerned parents. Since March, the PGP’s tracker suggests that the existing 200 US activists have been joined by about the same number of new leaders motivated by opposition to lockdowns and quarantines, conspiracy theories about vaccines, Bill Gates, George Soros (naturally), tracking chips, 5G radio waves (remember the burning phone masts?) and on and on.

If you like to join a baiting squad now and then on your laptop or down the pub, examine your conscience by having a look at your bedfellows. You will not like what you see.