Ubuntu Entrepreneurship with Henry Abraham … The other pandemic


There’s a pandemic spreading fast round the globe, that’s incredibly infectious. And for a change, I am not thinking of COVID-19. No, I refer to conspiracy theories.

You must be sheltered indeed if you have not heard claims that covid-19 is either a result of 5G mobile masts weakening immune systems (the most popular recent conspiracy theory on the web up till February according to Zignal Labs); or is man-made and part of a plan to force digital tracking on human kind that Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft and now a philanthropist with an interest in vaccines) is accused of seeking to use to force compulsory vaccination on the world (Zignal says this is now the most popular conspiracy theory on the web).

There have always been conspiracy theories, but why do they seem to have accelerated their spread exponentially alongside the pandemic?

The rapid spread of such theories suggests that they meet underlying psychological needs: we all tend to hear what we want to hear.  Buying into a conspiracy theory can be comforting particularly in tough times. It makes me feel my special knowledge sets me apart from the common and ignorant masses.

That sense of being a member of a knowledge elite is particularly attractive when the current pandemic leaves so many of us feeling far from special, a target that the virus may pick out at random: a risk we do not really understand and cannot fully control.  In contrast, once we have decided there is a man-made cause for the current problems, we can start to think of ways of bringing them under control by dealing with the cause.

To serve this purpose, a conspiracy theory must be only be believed by a minority, the conspiricists, who contrast themselves to what we may call the mainstreamers. If a large majority of the community comes to believe a conspiracy theory, it becomes the mainstream, and loses the power to comfort its followers with a sense of being part of a knowledge elite.

You may say that whether or not we accept a conspiracy theory is surely just a question of examining the evidence.  The difficulty is that evidence will often be interpreted quite differently depending on what you already believe or wish to believe. Here are a few examples relevant to current conspiracy theories.

Conspiracist Mainstreamer
The pandemic is huge

so there must be a plan underlying it, it couldn’t have just happened

The pandemic is huge

so its much too big for anyone to have been able to plan it

Bill Gates predicted the pandemic in 2015

so It follows he started it off as part of his plan to control the world

Bill Gates predicted the pandemic in 2015

so he wasn’t planning to use it, otherwise he wouldn’t have been warning world governments to prepare so they could avoid a pandemic

Numbers of pandemic deaths are less than predicted

so there was no need for the costly economy shutting decisions across the world, those were engineered by bad people wanting to aggravate the crisis

Number of pandemic deaths are less than predicted

so the costly economy shutting decisions made across the world are paying off

There is little in the mainstream media to support conspiracy theories but plenty on independent social media

so the powerbrokers behind the crisis also control the mainstream media and are suppressing the truth

There is little in the mainstream media to support conspiracy theories but plenty on independent social media

because the mainstream media do more fact checking work and are more liable to be discredited if they jump to false conclusions

These examples illustrate our ability to interpret evidence in the light of our temperaments and existing views.  It follows that we cannot expect to reach agreement with others, at least on complex issues, simply on the basis of evidence.

A further obstacle to reaching common conclusions is what implications we draw from evidence, even after it is agreed. For example, it seems probable that there are indeed groups of powerful people who try to control at least some world events to their own advantage. And that there are likely many such groups. But the very fact there could well be many such groups helps show why this, even if true, is not enough to establish a conspiracy theory, such as that one of these groups actually run the world. Running the world is a complicated, God-sized task. The fact some group or other desires to do so is far from being proof they actually are and so deserve our attention.

Whilst there seems to be a spike in conspiracy theories during the pandemic, such theories have always been significant in human thinking.  One perspective is that even negative interpresations that bring meaning can be more comforting than the idea that bad events are simply the result of chance – that we are not even worth targetting!

After all, a common view in Ghana (and in many other countries now or in the past) is that every bad event can be traced back to the local witch (and whoever paid her to intervene). This is a type of conspiracy theory, looking for deliberate purpose and action (let’s call this “agency”) behind events. This view not only helps us feel we matter, but suggests that with suitable counter interventions, we may be able to reverse or at least stop the bad stuff.

And at least for the non-believer, the view of many religions that the events of history may look random but are actually the result of a divine plan, may also sound like a big conspiracy theory, underpinned by an emotional need to find agency behind what we see.

Whilst I am temperamentally disinclined to believe conspiracy theories (perhaps due to a relatively happy childhood), I have come to see the value of a key strand within conspiricists’ framework for interpreting events. This is that much in the world is potentially within our power to change and not simply the result of impersonal forces that are impossible to influence.

On the other hand, I am a Christian, and do indeed believe there is positive agency behind what happens. Conspiricists, if they are right, may be able working with others “believers” in their particular conspiracy theory, to change or stop some particular bad things from happening or continuing. Religious believers, working together, aim to join in with ultimate agency (as we might call God) to change everything.

A key to the exceptional interest we have seen in conspiracy theories during the pandemic is the sense that the pandemic, and/or the effects of efforts to contain it, could have major consequences for me, or those close to me.

Issues that are clearly bigger than the pandemic in terms of the numbers of lives they impact, including absolute poverty (affecting 730 million compared to less than 7 million confirmed cases and less than 0.5 million deaths from covid-19 worldwide so far – of course, still a distressingly large number) or climate change (with the potential to push hundreds of millions into  absolute poverty or death over the next few decades as well as make the world poorer overall) may appear to have less impact on us as individuals at least  if we are relatively well off. If we believe these issues are unlikely to affect me personally, its makes us less willing to sacrifice to overcome them. Much the power of COVID-19 to get us to change our behaviour lies in the fact we are all much less sure we and those close to us can escape its effects.

But it should be obvious that a hugely unequal world, or indeed the widespread poverty and injustice here in Ghana, is not only immoral, but will bring great risks to us all, and also to our children and their children.  COVID-19 has shown us the scale of societal change we can achieve in a few short months when there is a will, so let’s grasp these bigger and ultimately more important challenges, with a similar level of commitment.

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