No matter the details of the plot, conspiracy theories follow common patterns of thought
by John Cook edited by O Society May 21, 2020
A sign of the times: a disinformation video called Plandemic recently went viral. Despite being taken down by YouTube and Facebook, it continues to get uploaded and viewed millions of times. The video is an interview with disinformation spigot Judy Mikovits, a disgraced former virology researcher who claims to believe the COVID-19 pandemic is based on vast deception, with its purpose being profit from selling vaccinations.
The video is rife with misinformation. Many high-quality fact-checks and debunkings published by reputable outlets such as Science, Politifact, and FactCheck. It’s not always humans who seem to be “believers,” in fact, Half of Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories on Twitter Come From Bots
As scholars who research how to counter science misinformation, we believe there is much value in exposing the rhetorical “brainwashing” techniques used in Plandemic. As outlined in Conspiracy Theory Handbook and How to Spot COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories, there are seven distinctive traits of conspiratorial thinking.
Plandemic offers textbook examples of all of ’em.
Learning these traits can outline the red flags of a baseless disinformation campaign and hopefully build up some skepticism to being taken in by this kind of storytelling. This is an especially important skill to own given the current surge of pandemic-fueled conspiracy gobbledygook.
1. Contradictory beliefs
Conspiracy theorists are so committed to disbelieving an official account, it doesn’t matter if their own belief system is internally contradictory.
For example, the Plandemic video advances two false origin stories for the coronavirus. It argues SARS-CoV-2 came from a lab in Wuhan, and it also argues everybody already has the coronavirus from previous vaccinations – both at the same time – and somehow wearing masks activates the virus. Believing in both fake stories at once makes no sense given these are two mutually exclusive narratives.
2. Overriding suspicion
Conspiracy theorists are overwhelmingly suspicious toward the official account. While we cannot be 100% certain of the exact moment in time and space the Coronavirus leaped from non- human to human, this does not mean any scientific evidence that doesn’t fit into the preconcieved outcome must be faked, by definition.
But if you think the scientific data are faked, it leads down the rabbit hole of believing any scientific organization publishing or endorsing research consistent with the “official account” must be in on the conspiracy. For COVID-19, this includes the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, Anthony Fauci… basically, any group or person who says the word “science” must be part of the conspiracy.
3. Nefarious intent
In a conspiracy theory, the conspirators are assumed to have evil motives. In the case of Plandemic, there’s no limit to the nefarious intent. The video suggests scientists including Anthony Fauci engineered the COVID-19 pandemic, a plot which involves killing hundreds of thousands of people so far for potentially billions of dollars of profit.
Yes, businesses do have a profit motive and marketers tell us to buy things we don’t need. This doesn’t mean they want to kill people with a plague.
4. Conviction something’s wrong
Conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable. Yet these revisions tend to never deviate from the overall conclusion “something must be wrong” and the official account must be “based on deception.”
When Plandemic filmmaker Mikki Willis was asked if he really believed COVID-19 was intentionally started for profit, his response was “I don’t know – to be clear – if it’s an intentional or naturally occurring situation. I have no idea.”
He has no idea. All he knows for sure is something must be wrong: “It’s too fishy.” What’s the definition of “fishy?” Just because you don’t like the news doesn’t mean it’s fake
5. Persecuted victim
Conspiracy theorists think of themselves as the victims of organized persecution. Plandemic further ratchets up the persecuted victimhood by characterizing the entire world population as victims of a vast deception, which is disseminated by the media and even ourselves as unwitting accomplices.
At the same time, conspiracy theorists see themselves as brave heroes taking on the villainous conspirators.
6. Immunity to evidence
It’s so hard to change a conspiracy theorist’s mind because their theories are self-sealing. Even absence of evidence for a theory becomes evidence for the theory: The reason there’s no proof of the conspiracy is because the conspirators did such a good job of covering it up, ahem.
7. Reinterpreting randomness
Conspiracy theorists see patterns everywhere – they’re all about connecting the dots. Random events are reinterpreted as being caused by the conspiracy and woven into a broader, interconnected pattern. Thus any connections are imbued with sinister meaning.
For example, the Plandemic video suggestively points to the U.S. National Institutes of Health funding that goes to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. This is despite the fact the lab is just one of many international collaborators on a project whose mission is to examine the risk of future zoonotic viruses emerging from wildlife.
Critical thinking is the antidote
As we explore in Conspiracy Theory Handbook, there are a variety of strategies you can use in response to conspiracy theories.
One approach is to inoculate yourself and your social networks by identifying and calling out the traits of conspiratorial thinking. Another approach is to “cognitively empower” people by encouraging us to think analytically. The antidote to conspiratorial thinking is critical thinking, which involves healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence.
Understanding and revealing the techniques of conspiracy theorists is key to inoculating yourself and others from being misled, especially when we are most vulnerable: times of crises and uncertainty.