Never let facts stand in way of wild conspiracy

The conspiracy theory video “Plandemic” recently went viral. Despite being taken down by YouTube and Facebook, it continues to be uploaded and viewed millions of times.

The video is based on an interview with conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits. She’s a disgraced former virology researcher who believes the COVID-19 pandemic is based on vast deception, aimed at profiting from vaccinations.

The video is rife with conspiratorial misinformation. Many high-quality fact-checks and debunkings have been published by reputable outlets, including Science, Politifact and FactCheck.

As scholars who research ways to counter science misinformation and conspiracy theories, we believe there is value in exposing the rhetorical techniques used in “Plandemic.”

As we outline in our Conspiracy Theory Handbook and How to Spot COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, there are seven distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking. “Plandemic” features textbook examples of them all.

Learning these traits can help you spot the red flags of a baseless conspiracy theory and hopefully build some resistance. This is an important skill given the current surge of pandemic-related conspiracy theories.

The seven traits of conspiratorial thinking are:


1. Contradictory beliefs

Conspiracy theorists are so committed to disbelieving an official account, it doesn’t matter if their belief system is internally contradictory.

The “Plandemic” video advances two false origin stories for the coronavirus: It argues that SARS-CoV-2 originated from a lab in Wuhan, but also argues everyone already has the coronavirus from previous vaccinations, and wearing masks activates it.

Believing both causes is mutually inconsistent.


2. Overriding suspicion

Conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly suspicious toward official accounts. That means any scientific evidence that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory must be faked.

If you think the scientific data is faked, that leads you down the rabbit hole of believing any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research consistent the official account must be part of the conspiracy.

For COVID-19, this includes the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Food and Drug Administration, epidemiologist Anthony Fauci and any other group or person who actually knows anything about science. They must all be part of the conspiracy.


3. Nefarious intent

In a conspiracy theory, the conspirators are assumed to have evil motives. And in the case of “Plandemic,” there’s no limit to the nefarious intent.

The video suggests scientists, including Dr. Fauci, engineered the COVID-19 pandemic. It suggests they plotted to kill hundreds of thousands of people for potentially billions of dollars of vaccination profit on down the line.


4. Conviction something’s wrong

Conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable. But those revisions tend not to change their overall conclusion “something must be wrong,” that the official account must be based on deception.

When “Plandemic” filmmaker Mikki Willis was asked if he really believed COVID-19 was intentionally started for profit, his response was. “I don’t know, to be clear, if it’s an intentional or naturally occurring situation. I have no idea.”

He has no idea. All he knows for sure is something must be wrong.

“It’s too fishy,” he said.


5. Persecuted victim

Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the victims of organized persecution. “Plandemic” further ratchets up the persecuted victimhood by characterizing the entire world population as victims of a vast deception, which is disseminated by the media and even ourselves as unwitting accomplices.

This enables conspiracy theorists see themselves as brave heroes taking on the villainous conspirators.


6. Immunity to evidence

It’s so hard to change conspiracy theorists’ minds because their theories are self-sealing.

Even absence of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the theory. The reason there’s no proof of the conspiracy, they reason, is because the conspirators did such a good job covering it up.


7. Reinterpreting randomness

Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere. They’re all about connecting the dots.

Random events are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern. Any connections are imbued with sinister meaning.

For example, the “Plandemic” video suggestively points to National Institutes of Health funding routed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. This is despite the fact that the lab is just one of many international collaborators on an NIH project seeking to examine the risk of future viruses emerging from wildlife.

Learning about common traits of conspiratorial thinking can help you recognize and resist conspiracy theories. As we explore in our Conspiracy Theory Handbook, there are a variety of strategies you can use in response to conspiracy theories.

One is to inoculate yourself and your social networks by identifying and calling out the traits of conspiracy thinking. Another  is to cognitively empower people by encouraging them to think analytically.

The antidote to conspiratorial thinking is critical thinking, which involves healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence.

Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to inoculating yourself and others from being misled. That’s especially important when we are most vulnerable — in times of crises and uncertainty.

 From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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