Researcher, expert combat conspiracies with facts

Illustration by Scott Woods

Western experts say one need only to look at the White House – with briefings that include suggestions injecting bleach or UV rays could zap the virus – to see how misguided, dangerous information can spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated its own mythology – much of it untrue – among those seeking a community of like-minded believers. But these wild theories and conspiracies are more than harmless fun. In fact, warn Western experts, they can endanger or cost lives.

Conspiracy theorists and myth-makers do what they do, in part, because it provides them a sense of belonging. “It gives them community,” said King’s University College professor Alison Meek.

Meek’s research throws shade on the world of paranoid possibilities, and casts light on what keeps them going despite reasonable arguments to the contrary.

Spreading conspiracies and medical misinformation also offers people a path out of uncertainty, a tool against an invisible and mysterious enemy, she said. “It’s really scary and they’re looking for easy answers. Conspiracy theories tend to offer people a misguided sense of comfort because they come at times of chaos. They also allow us to identify a ‘bad guy,’” she said.

Despite what certain family members or neighbours post on Facebook, Meek said, there’s no truth to the idea that the coronavirus was deliberately released as a hostile threat; that 5G cellular technology spreads the virus; or that it’s a globalist plot by billionaire Bill Gates to infect hapless citizens so that he can peddle a vaccine.

These shouldn’t need to be explained – but they do, Meek stressed.

Just as anti-vaxxers keep insisting that vaccines cause autism – basing their belief on a debunked, deliberately falsified study and not on the mountain of evidence to the contrary – fighting fiction with science doesn’t necessarily work. In fact, populism often demands that adherents discount science in favour of their own selective research or ‘gut feeling,’ she said.

One need only to look at the White House – with briefings that include suggestions injecting bleach or UV rays could zap the virus – to see how misguided, dangerous information can spread. “It’s that democratization of information. But information does not equal knowledge,” Meek said.

“At the end of every single class, I’ll say to the students, ‘How do we combat this?’ The simple answer is, we can’t, because the facts don’t matter (to them). But we can’t not do this. We can’t allow them the airwaves without some pushback.”

Toward that end, a Western alumnus helping lead national research into myths about the virus also spends much of his time debunking misinformation online on Twitter.

Sajjad Fazel, MPH’18, is a researcher at Alberta Health Services in Calgary and a social media influencer and health promoter in Tanzania. He is part of a national study mapping the type, content and context of misinformation and how to make accurate information more palatable than the myths.

“Right now, people are in a state of panic and fear. Everyone wants some sense of control. But the science and the research are still evolving about COVID-19,” he said.

And when you pit the unknowns and the cautious opinions expressed about the virus against the ‘certainties’ offered by the snake-oil salesmen, it’s sometimes the latter voice that’s most persuasive.

He said people need to examine what’s motivating people who plug unconventional solutions such as ‘immune-boosting pills’ (there is no such thing) or promote conspiracies such as vaccine trials leading to globalist mind control.

Sometimes, he said, they’re selling a product they have a stake in. Extremist YouTube videos generate more views, which also generate more revenue for those who post them.

That’s when public-health officials need to hammer home facts with creativity, he said. He cited a Ohio Department of Health video that used pingpong balls dropped on mousetraps to show the importance of social distancing.

“One thing the COVID-19 crisis teaches us is we need to find new ways of public-health messaging and new ways of getting messages across. It needs to be more progressive than in the old days just putting up a billboard saying, ‘Smoking kills.’”

Meek said one way to stop conspiracy theories could be by making them as socially unacceptable as smoking: If someone propagates propaganda or refuses to practise social distancing, they’re not allowed at the party.

Meek is also actively challenging misinformation on social media. @AlyMeek pushes back when conspiracy views cross the line into doing medical, physical or ethical harm.

“I jump in the minute anti-vaxxers compare themselves to Jews in the Holocaust or compare themselves to Rosa Parks in the civil rights movement,” she said.