Do COVID-19 conspiracy theories stem from gullibility or skepticism?
When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic that has the world in its grip, gaps in public knowledge still abound. It is therefore not surprising that during the last weeks a whole bunch of ‘interesting’ theories and speculations regarding ‘what is really going on’ have surfaced. Did the virus originate with very hungry Chinese people eating bats (Baragona, Watson 2020), or has it been deliberately spread by world leaders to counteract the ageing of the population? Did the US create the virus to justify an economic war on China? Is it a plot to destabilize Iran? Far right Youtubers try to convince their enormous audience that ‘globalism’ and open borders are to be blamed for the rapid spread of the virus (Watson 2020a). Italy’s rightwing populist leaders Salvini and Meloni are spreading debunked conspiracy theories through Facebook and Twitter: e.g. in 2015, a Chinese lab already created a ‘Supercoronavirus’ from bats and mice (Nardelli & D’Urso). Influencers and Russian media helpfully contribute that the virus might originate from 5G wireless technology use. Even after such theories have been debunked by media outlets and fact checkers, they generate millions of views on social media.  They seem to be spreading almost as fast as the virus itself.
Then there are the less serious, just mildly annoying forms of misinformation like the daily emails I receive from companies with ads masquerading as public service, public health information, or concern for my wellbeing: “Don’t worry, we will still cut your hair” or “our pizzas are now half off and we’ll throw them at your door from a distance”.
Of course, fake news and conspiracies have been around since humankind. Spreading uncertain information or rumors could even be considered a social means of survival (Radnitz 2020). Our current online media only extend these existing practices—in speed, accessibility, and scale. Yet in a pandemic, misinformation can have harmful effects and even cost lives as people base their actions (and non-actions) on it.
We were, in fact, not born yesterday!
Are we then so ready to accept anything anyone tells us? In Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who we Trust and Who we Believe (2020), Hugo Mercier answers this question with a firm ‘no’. Humans, he claims, are not gullible; in fact, we are very good at deciding in whom we place our trust. Mercier presents a range of evidence from political science, history, and anthropology, stating that historical attempts at mass persuasion by demagogues and propagandists have in fact failed most of the time. He draws on experimental psychology to explain why this is: humans are equipped with sophisticated cognitive mechanisms of ‘open vigilance’. These allow us to filter the flow of information surrounding us. These mechanisms compute a range of cues to decide how much we should believe of what others tell us, and thus prompt vigilance against potentially damaging beliefs. We compare new information with what we already hold true, and in case it is incongruent, reject this information. At the same time, these mechanisms are ‘open’ enough to allow us to change our minds, if we have reasons to believe the source of the information is well-informed, competent, or offers sound argumentation: in short, if we consider the source trustworthy. Mercier optimistically chooses to interpret failures in this system (instances in which false information is accepted) as ‘bugs’ to overcome in otherwise effective cognitive mechanisms, instead of signs of gullibility.
So if we aren’t naïve, then what exactly are we? Mercier goes with “rationally skeptical”. In the absence of good reasons to change our minds, he says, we simply don’t; yet people we trust can persuade us. Trust is therefore especially important in times of information overload:
Because we don’t have the time, the motivation, or even the extra information required to properly evaluate most of the information we encounter, we revert to a state of rational skepticism. … the largest problem with the current informational environment isn’t the information we accept which we should have rejected, but the information we reject which we should (had we had more information) have accepted. (Mercier 2020a)
He calls this ‘information asymmetry,’ which means that we gather more knowledge and reap more beneficial effects from trusting than from not trusting. You get more information when you trust, including information on whether the source turns out to be right, hence trustworthy. However, if the stakes are very high—say, in times of a global pandemic—we are inclined to not trust enough, afraid of what it will cost us.
Media literacy and a hermeneutic of suspicion
In highlighting the role of the media in all this, Piia Varis (2018) offers a valuable addition to Mercier’s study. Varis considers the role of the Internet in how we determine what is true. The media are by no means neutral actors; they increase the visibility of certain content. Sensationalist messages perform especially well in attention-based digital media in terms of spreadability (Mihailidis & Viotty 2017). Thus, the algorithms of Youtube are known to aid the rapid spread of conspiracy theories, which show up as top search results. Platforms like Reddit, with its affordances such of up- and downvoting, offer new ways to establish expertise and authority, and facilitate the formation of new groups around topics of interest. Today, such technological and social affordances are game changers in knowledge production.
Going back to Mercier’s thesis, and taking this media sphere into account, I would agree that we are not gullible: I might even go one step further, and ask if in Western culture, media users have not become too skeptical for their own good. In Europe and the United States, trust in the media has been steadily eroding since the 1960s (Bialik and Matsa 2017). Americans increasingly suspect mainstream media of bias and are driven to find more objective news sources (Gallup and Knight 2018). Academics, traditional outlets, and bureaucratic news sources alike face an erosion of trust from the public. Lay people often parse information according to an interpretative strategy that we might call a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ (Ricoeur 1965). They are alert to being are gaslighted by mainstream news media or our governments.
Danah boyd has made the observation that while media literacy is often hailed as the solution to all this, it can be fact be seen as the problem itself. That is, if we take media literacy to mean teaching students to ‘do the research’ for themselves, which often entails relying on Google to find answers to their questions. Self-investigation, and getting ‘informed’ as a personal responsibility, is not always a good thing when we do not all agree what constitutes a trusted source. In a climate of doubt and skepticism (Conway & Oreskes 2010), and in communities where ‘the liberal media’ are distrusted, urging young people to find out for themselves who is to be trusted can be sketchy, especially as radical web forums abound offering them ‘the red pill,’ or a more radical, alternative view of reality. They are primed to doubt information, question authority, and look for hidden agendas.
In case of the current global pandemic, the invisibility of the virus as an object of knowledge, and the lack of data, make it impossible to determine in any positivistic manner ‘who was right,’ and it could take a while before we could determine in hindsight who was worthy of our trust. We could, with Golebiewski and boyd (2018) speak of a ‘data void’. Even scientists work with theories until these are falsified. When new facts become known, and they have to make new inferences, that doesn’t mean they were spreading fake news. Updating models and hypotheses in light of new data is normal scientific practice. Conspiracy theorists, alt- and far right activists, political influencers, are eager to fill the knowledge gaps with more sweeping theories. They score very high on media literacy. They know how to optimize their content to come out on top of the Youtube searches (Maly 2018).
Collective (un)intelligence: COVID as transmedia storytelling?
The current state of technology and the availability of new communal platforms, as well as an increasing level of media literacy, have undermined the monopoly of the old media institutions: a development heralded by Henry Jenkins in 2003 under the flag of ‘convergence culture’. Back then, Jenkins was optimistic: participating in collective processes of interpretation and communication, he thought, could foster democratic decision-making processes. Lay people with shared interests, or ‘knowledge communities’, come together to solve puzzles. Media users have become hunters and gatherers, piecing together narratives across different channels: this, Jenkins called transmedia storytelling. Collective intelligence is needed for virtual communities to operationalize the aggregate skills and knowledge of their individual members. In knowledge communities, reading practices and interpretative strategies include a meticulous, almost obsessive attention to detail and a readiness (and, these weeks, a lot of spare time) to engage in time-consuming and painstaking analyses and close readings/viewings. Together, we see, hear, and understand more: collective intelligence can be seen as a contemporary spin on what Walter Benjamin (1999) called the deepening of apperception through technology.
Jenkins of course writes of transmedia storytelling with regards to fictional universes like Lost or Twin Peaks, marked by a ‘conspirational mode of storytelling’ (Brinker 2012). Such series are like conspiracy theories, in that they show an underlying organizational logic of gaining progressive insight into hidden plans of some scheming party, while the number of unexplained mysteries and unanswered plot questions multiplies and more and more sinister plots come to the surface (Barkun 2003). Are such series so popular because this is how many people experience the real world? Are they priming us to become even more vigilant? In any case, the distinction between leisurely consumption of fictional media on the one hand, and knowledge production about real issues online on the other, becomes increasingly unclear. Distrust of official narratives marks a lot of what happens on discussion forums and social media online. Fact and fiction, truth and rumor, are increasingly blurred.
What happens in a data void, is that we start filling in the gaps through speculation, gathering crumbs of information and piecing them together. COVID-19 becomes an event of transmedia storytelling, emblematic for our current media landscape. In conclusion, we are far from gullible. Practices of close reading and close viewing are alive and kicking. Many of us are media literate, as well as narratively literate. There is, however, a thin line between media literacy and paranoia.
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*** It has to be noted that digital tech and social media companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, YouTube and Reddit have now taken precautions against the spread of misinformation (see Maly 2020).