Of conspiracy theories and COVID-19 – Part 3


It is even more dangerous when they have a considerable number of followers on social media platforms and a few clicks can gather a million views in as little as two hours. Since it is almost futile to dissuade them, we can do several things to hinder the spread of these fallacies. If we get a message from social media and reputable news outlets are not carrying it, let’s stop, think and ask ourselves if this fleeting information is true. We should not forward it. If you’re still not convinced that it is a conspiracy theory, then look for clues. They like to quote big names from political organizations and academia. Go to the website of that organization. Is the information available on that site? Sometimes, a once reputable person that might have fallen into disrepute but is not popularly known to have fallen from grace would write a book in support of these theories. Unfortunately, humans tend to believe everything in print forgetting that it can contain deliberate misinformation.

Closely look at the followership of the conspiracy theorist a week or month before s/he started sending out the misinformation. It might have been in single digits or less than 100.You will notice that immediately after the misinformation from his/her website, the number of clicks and subsequently, money from adverts on his/her sites reached millions. Authored books by the proponents sold on Amazon that hitherto had not been sold for several years will quickly sell out. Some speakers would purport to be experts but if you search for the organization where they work it does not add up. Apart from the anxieties caused by the pandemic, mistrust of governments has consolidated these beliefs.

Those who tend to believe in conspiracy theories do not get their news feed from mainstream media. They believe the mainstream media is a government tool and will not give accurate information. Some governments have used the pandemic to increase control of their populations and enacted laws that teeter on borderline control. China did not want the Black Lives Matter protest in Hong Kong claiming fear of the spread of the virus. A few weeks later, China clammed down on Hong Kong with draconian security laws. Applications that can be installed in phones for monitoring of movements and alerting those within a certain radius if they’ve been in contact with an infected person can also be used for collecting other personal data.

In Nigeria, we have our own home-spawned conspiracy theories. There is no hierarchy in this plethora of theories. These home-spawned versions conclude that the coronavirus does not exist, that it is a hoax and that our government is not telling the truth. Such proponents believe that the entire COVID-19 fight is another money-making gimmick. They believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has just become a cash cow and is not in Nigeria! They support their arguments that compared to countries like Brazil, they have not been shown videos of graveyards where those that died from COVID-19 are being buried. They buttress their points that state governments started “increasing the numbers of their COVID-19 cases” to increase their access to COVID-19 funds. Videos of empty isolation wards, debacle of the ‘Chinese doctors” brought to Nigeria, sharing of minion-sized palliatives, reports of a person going to the hospital to remove a fish bone from the throat and being branded as a coronavirus case, stories of monies changing hands to have one’s name written in a COVID-19 ward, hospital staff being told that they would receive money if they can claim they have a COVID-19 patient. These appalling stories if true are bound to birth several hydra-headed conspiracy theories.

Fundamentally, our leaders must be fair, just and transparent in their duties. Gaps in information and lack of transparency will also fuel conspiracy theories. The human mind loathes gaps in information. Once there’s a gap in information, it would be filled with misinformation. Social media has also enabled the spread of these false narratives. The giants of social media must do more to police the information being shared on their platforms. The algorithms being used by social media giants to police misinformation are actually key words that can also be used to spread false information. Twitter and Facebook has started flagging false information but they need to do more on content moderation. Facebook is presently facing a backlash that has seen humongous corporations withdraw their advertisements because they believe Facebook is not doing enough. Health Education and Communication must be targeted at fighting propaganda from all social media networks. Most of those who believe in conspiracy theories are usually far-right leaning groups, people that are suspicious of scientific knowledge, persons that deny climate change, people that are against vaccinations, those who fail to analyze information and those who get majority of their news feed from social media.

The main stream news media must do more to promote accurate information and reduce sensationalism in news reporting. The people must be better informed in visual, science and health literacy. China should show more transparency in this pandemic. As we can learn from the events in USA and Brazil, where their leaders tended to downplay the severity of the virus, their countries have been recording the highest number of cases and deaths. The USA has recorded the highest number of confirmed cases while Brazil has recorded the highest number of deaths per capita with the second highest number of confirmed cases in the world. Political leaders have a crucial role in investing and promoting accurate information. Last month, the president of Burundi died. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack but speculations were rife that he died from complications of COVID-19 especially as his wife had been flown to Nairobi for treatment from COVID-19 infection.

The late Burundian president downplayed the coronavirus and discouraged every contrary view. He expelled officials of the World Health Organisation (WHO) from his country because he felt they were contradicting his own views on COVID-19. The state of New York crossed the Rubicon because the Governor did not entertain anyright-wing ideologies. It has advised travelers from several states in the USA to self- isolate if travelling to New York. Travelers from USA have been banned from flying to countries of the European Union (EU). While the daily number of infected cases is coming down in most of the EU countries, many states in the USA still have an increase in number of daily cases.

In normal times, 15 million Americans travel to the EU every year bringing an economic boost to those countries. Conspiracy theories not only affect health; they also affect the economies of the world. Religious leaders should actively silence the cacophony of conspiracy narratives and not amplify them. More than ninety percent of Nigerians identify as religious. The religious leaders should enlighten their followers on health and science literacies. They should bring down every contrary narrative about the COVID-19. The onus is on us to be vigilante, analytical and responsible in how we receive our various news items. We should not be part of the rogue army that has joined forces in spreading the torrent of conspiracy theories around COVID-19. Rather, we should join our efforts to fight the current number one enemy against the human race; the virus and crush the hydra-headed infodemic of conspiracy theories.
Obilade, a medical doctor and an Associate professor of Public Health, wrote from Abuja.

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