At the tail end of the First World War, a rumour spread through Britain and America that a biological weapon—a virus—had been created and unleashed by the Germans. People told elaborate stories of German spies spreading the virus and how the German-made Bayer aspirin was tainted with it. These conspiracy theories were related to the 1918 influenza outbreak, H1N1, commonly known as the Spanish Flu. The virus ended up taking the lives of an estimated fifty million people. The claims of it being a biological weapon though, were highly suspect. A 2014 study published in the scientific journal PNAS even raises the possibility that the virus originated in North America, with the H1 component circulating in humans well before 1918. Still, given the circumstances of the world during the outbreak, it’s easy to see how these erroneous theories might have developed.
At the time, the world was experiencing the first mechanised war where tanks crushed foes, death rained from above, and mustard gas suffocated soldiers. New ways of killing were being developed all the time, so why not a biological weapon? Arguably, believing that the virus was manufactured provided a way for people to feel empowered during the pandemic, since they could at least understand why the pandemic was happening. As communications experts Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, who have spent years researching the thinking patterns of conspiracy theorists, argue, “When people feel like they have lost control of a situation, their conspiracist tendencies increase.”
This brings us to the present day conspiracy theories related to COVID-19. Instead of the Germans, we have rumours of the Chinese manufacturing and releasing a virus. Instead of tainted aspirin, there are the strange conspiracies swirling around the 5G network. These range from radio waves causing the pandemic, to governments faking the virus while they install the 5G network. The latter scenario depicts 5G as a shadowy government tool for controlling and suppressing citizens. On face value these claims are difficult to understand, especially when considering the virus has also devasted China, and that 5G is simply an extension of 4G; billions of people have been using the same radio waves for years without consequence.
There is something else bubbling beneath the surface of these seemingly irrational thoughts: a human need for context and control. Like those encountering The Spanish Flu in WW1, there is a desire for a locus, a vessel to place all this uncertainty in, and most importantly something tangible to point at and definitively say, “There it is. That’s the culprit.” As journalist Mark Lynas discusses, while writing for Cornell’s Alliance For Science: “Conspiracies have a reassuring function psychologically because they make people feel that someone – even though they may be evil – is in control of events …”
This is evident in cases where Coronavirus vigilantes have attacked what they thought were 5G phone masts, lighting them on fire, when many were actually 3G and 4G masts. It’s also worth considering how convenient certain parallels are between COVID-19 and the alleged killer radio waves. In theory, both are unseen, inflicting their pain beyond the scope of the naked eye. The convenience of choosing to believe in deadly 5G radio waves over a killer virus, though, is that the former provides a physical source to attack and link to shadowy political agendas. These agendas can at least be protested and fought against. A virus, on the other hand, is an unnerving opponent. It does what it does as a biological necessity. Orchestrated plots and nefarious acts against humanity are not a virus’s M.O. For this reason, holding someone accountable is preferable.
In this way, China’s perceived role as a villain in many Western generated COVID-19 conspiracy theories is both deceptively simple and deviously complex. It could be said that China’s alleged manufacturing of the virus is a knee jerk reaction to Wuhan being the first major site of a COVID-19 outbreak, and an extension of racial and cultural prejudice towards those seen to be the other. This is not to say that China is a model for humanitarianism; it isn’t. But conspiracy theorists pushing the Chinese biowarfare angle are also—perhaps
inadvertently—channelling anxieties about the current political climate between China and America.
Over the last few years, the trade war between these superpowers has been steadily intensifying with a series of escalating tariffs on each other’s products. Recently, citing national security, America banned Chinese companies such as Huawei from buying parts from US companies. Other Western nations followed Washington’s lead with their own restrictions. For its part, Australia banned Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from being involved in the setup of, fittingly enough, the 5G network in Australia. Instead of a military conflict to divide nations, as in WW1, we have an economic clash between two of the world’s largest economies.
This strained political climate has seemingly provided the spark for these conspiracy theories. Of course, white nationalists and other xenophobic entities are happy to fan the flames too. According to Dr Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change project at Harvard University, these groups are quick to promote disinformation if it feeds into their pre-existing agendas. The Trump administration hasn’t helped matters either. In his press briefings, despite U.S. intelligence agencies and the wider scientific community disagreeing, President Trump has made unsubstantiated claims about the virus being manufactured.
Still, it’s important to remember that not everyone who is tempted by conspiracy theories holds racial prejudices or ideological agendas. Many people just want to know the truth, but because disinformation is so widespread, it can be tricky to know what that is. It’s especially confusing when there have been real conspiracies and scandals like Watergate in 1972.
To address this confusion and help people recognise the difference between conspiratorial and conventional thinking, researchers Cook and Lewandowsky have created The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. Within it they emphasise how real conspiracies—such as when tobacco companies deceived the public about the health effects of nicotine—are rarely revealed due to the approaches of conspiracy theorists. Instead, it is the methods of conventional thinking that work best: healthy scepticism, reviewing official accounts, and carefully considering available evidence while keeping an open mind. In contrast, conspiratorial thinking tends to be hyper-sceptical of any information or evidence that does not fit with the conspiracy theory. This also demonstrates how resilient conspiracy theorists can be when it comes to acknowledging contradictions in their beliefs. In many ways, it’s a safe, comfortable place to be when confronting global turmoil.
As with The Spanish Flu, the current pandemic is a horrifying and chaotic reality that is difficult to approach head-on. For many, thinking of it as being connected to political agendas such as East vs West narratives allows for a more digestible story. As erroneous as these pandemic conspiracy theories are, they contain a buried truth within: people create stories to explain the unexplainable and to comfort themselves during times of uncertainty and fear. For this reason, we should have sympathy and understanding for those holding onto misguided and harmful conspiracies. Simply chastising them for their beliefs may push them further down the rabbit hole. We need to offer support while encouraging them to think analytically. By doing this, we can empower them with a healthier way to approach these difficult times. As Cook and Lewandowsky say, “When people feel empowered, they are more resilient to conspiracy theories.”
Grant Redgen is a fiction writer and musician from Brisbane. As a musician, he’s played shows and festivals as far abroad as New York and composed music for short films and video games. These experiences and his love of moody music often colour the themes within his fiction writing. He is currently studying a Bachelor of Creative Writing at QUT.