No, a street lamp won’t give you the virus

Conspiracy theories: Many wild ideas about the virus are themselves “going viral”.

Should conspiracy theories be banned? As the world continues to grapple with the threat of a coronavirus pandemic, troubling fake news about Covid-19 is spreading across the internet.

Millions have been told to stay indoors. Tens of thousands have been infected. Over three thousand have sadly died.

There are queues to buy face masks, offices are telling employees to stay home, and scientists are yet to find a vaccine.

But if this set of circumstances were not enough, the panic surrounding the novel coronavirus epidemic has only been made worse by the viral spread of conspiracy theories online.

Rumours make it harder for doctors and health officials to protect members of the public.

If you believe that you catch a virus through your phone signal, you are less likely to wash your hands.

Here are some of the more outrageous theories:

The virus escaped from a Chinese research lab. Although there are no grounds for this theory – other than there being a lab near the huge city where the outbreak started – it has been repeated by US senator Tom Cotton.

It’s in the airwaves. According to this theory, it is the new 5G technology (that has been rolled out in Wuhan) that is behind the virus. Some have even claimed it is caused by LED smart street lights. Quite how this has affected Iranians in far-less connected regions is unclear.

The US government wants to poison communism. By releasing a man-made virus into China, the US is looking to weaken its main economic rival – so this outlandish theory goes. But though the virus has revealed flaws with the authoritarian Chinese system, it also infected scores in capitalist Italy and South Korea, and severely damaged the global economy.

Marijuana cures Covid-19. This theory was shared on Twitter by a prominent Indian film-maker, praising the country’s heritage of plant-based cures. However, there is no evidence that cannabis would soothe any of the virus’s symptoms.

Boiled garlic water gives you immunity. Mix eight cloves of chopped garlic with seven cups of boiling water. This rumour spread quickly on WhatsApp where people often trust their contacts. Sadly, scientists give this simple cure absolutely zero credibility.

The coronavirus was patented in 2015. This theory, shared widely across “anti-vaxxer” Twitter accounts, suggests that the disease was made by the governments across the world to control their population – in other words, get everyone scared, then vaccinate them all.

Should silly theories like these be banned?

I heard a rumour

Conspiracy theories do nothing but harm in a time of crisis. They convince individuals that the enemy is something hidden or malevolent, distracting them from the medical advice they need. In an emergency, facts save lives. The internet, its social media platforms, and the government should all do more to ensure that the public is not misinformed. Fake news should be silenced.

Then again, you cannot stop people making up rumours. Gossip is how people have always discussed what matters to them. Although the scientific consensus seems to be well established when it comes to Covid-19, there have been times when the minority opinion has triumphed over the consensus. Even when people say ridiculous things, diversity of thought and freedom of speech are worth defending.

You Decide

  1. Do you think that all gossip is necessarily bad? Think of a situation where gossip might actually be justified.
  2. Do any of the conspiracy theories listed in this article make more sense to you than the scientific explanation (that this is another virus caught from an animal)? Does that frighten you?

Activities

  1. In pairs, role play a conversation where someone believes one of the conspiracy theories listed above. The other person has to try and convince them that they are wrong.
  2. Try and find the online sources for the conspiracy theories above. Write a list of what these sites all have in common.

Some People Say...

“Don’t waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.”

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer, author of The Alchemist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
YouTube is displaying a banner from the World Health Organisation alongside any video about the virus. Facebook has fact-checkers ranking down false information about Covid-19, limiting the spread of fake news.
What do we not know?
We still do not know the exact origin of the virus, or how to treat the virus. We do not know how to stop rumours from being so convincing and seductive. We do not know how we could ever stop people from questioning the official narrative.

Word Watch

Novel
New.
5G
Fifth-generation, wireless technology for cellular (mobile) devices.
Wuhan
City in central China with a population of 11 million.
LED
A light-emitting diode, the technology behind most modern screens.
Authoritarian
System of government where the decisions are taken by those in power, not the general public.
Anti-vaxxer
Someone who believes that vaccines don’t work and are a tool for the government to control people.

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