What do Covid-19 conspiracy theories say about our society?

By Nemanja Milosevic

We are seeing many conspiracy theories spreading online about the novel virus that are either very vague (this is a preparation for something bigger, the exercise of larger population control), put specific blame for the virus (some country created it in a laboratory) or present a large ploy that is behind it (implementation of a larger idea, like 5G). I will not try to debunk those stories, as there are already many attempts to do so, but rather to provide a reading of some of their elements.

In cultural anthropology, stories such as urban legends, fables and myths are seen as narratives that fill provide a culture with a set of meanings that they can use to understand the cosmology they belong to, how things function morally, politically, culturally, etc. Their veracity is not important and individuals who share them might be well aware of that fact. Here, I am suggesting that we try to understand conspiracy theories in such a way: as a narrative that responds to a certain need of people who are emotionally invested in them and spread them further.

For instance, anthropologist Ela Drazkiewicz explains that so-called anti-vaxxers are not all irrationally opting out of the vaccination program in Ireland because of their blind belief in conspiracies, but had different reasons and motivations. Drazkeiwicz found out in her research that rejection of vaccination was not so much based on the strong rejection of scientific evidence, as much as it was a reflection of the mistrust towards health professionals and institutions, citizens being failed by the Irish health system and rigorous conservative laws related to the reproductive health of women. [1]

Long ago, philosopher Fredric Jameson proposed the concept of cognitive mapping, a way in which individuals position their phenomenological experience within the totality of social, political, and economic relations – somehow mapping our experience in a socio-political realm like we would position ourselves on a geographical mental map. [2] For him, in late-capitalism, such a thing is a challenge itself. The capital that largely determines our existence becomes vague as it functions globally and speculatively, tangled within a convoluted network of things that are far away from our immediate experience. Slavoj Žižek also points to the fact that while capitalism is global at the level of production, it is not global at the level of meaning (there is no such thing as a capitalist civilization). [3] Therefore, the extremely elaborate conspirative plots are cognitive mapping in the postmodern age, “a degraded figure of the total logic of capital, a desperate attempt to represent the (…) system, whose failure is marked by its slippage into sheer theme and content.”[4]

There are several things we need to consider that are challenging the way people can map cognitively the current health crisis.

The globalization of production

Ángel Luis Lara, in the opinion piece for the Spanish newspaper El Diario, provides a detailed and plausible understanding of the health crisis with references to many scientific sources. [5] He explains that the transmission of viruses from an animal – such as a bat to humans – has become more common with the popularization of mega-farms – massive production of meat that satisfies large markets. The tendency to move production of meat from small farms to mega farms is primarily an economic one. It allows accumulation of wealth of such intensity that their owners consider a potential disease-spread among humans as an acceptable risk (according to the biologist Robert G. Wallace, the author of Big Farms Make Big Flu). Such massive construction of farms leads to the destruction of natural habitats of wild animals and causes closer contact between wild and domestic animals (for example, public health researcher Michael Greger proposes a theory by which flu, as a disease among humans, appeared for the first time with the domestication of birds 2.500 years ago). 

Besides the globalization of production, it is also the globalization of tourism, travel, way of life and business that bring people into much closer geographical ties, where a virus can easily spread widely outside of national borders. The circumstances that might have led to the virus are as convoluted as they are for any other modern phenomenon – how do we grasp the fact that our everyday experience is turned upside-down because of wild animals in a country on the other side of the globe?

Pleasure economy and profits

Another question that we may ask ourselves in these times is: how come our societies, that can produce an insurmountable amount of new smart 3D television screens, face detecting cell phones, beauty and anti-age products of all uses and purposes, are not capable of providing a coordinated response to a health crisis that requires a mass usage of protective health equipment, masks and ventilators? We live in an age of incredible scientific development: artificial intelligence and 3D printers are some of the things that facilitate many issues in our societies and improve our lives significantly, so why are we not able to use that progress in the right way in this emergency? The answer might be in the logic of capital and the relationship between the state and the economy. 

Profitability is the main driver of innovation and production, and it is not principally based on social need, but functions largely within a pleasure economy (elaborate marketing machinery is set in place to motivate the desire for consumption of sparkly objects. We live, as philosopher Guy Debord says, in a society of the spectacle). The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in a report that warns about the inefficiency of home-made cloth masks, emphasizes the need to produce reusable professional masks that can be sterilized. They conclude that “so far, manufacturers have had no reason or incentive to develop methods for decontamination or introduce reusable masks, but it is obvious that there is an urgent need to develop reusable masks that can be decontaminated.” [6] It seems obvious that the production we have set in place does not prioritize our actual needs.

Similarly, zoologist Peter Daszak explains for the New York Times that a group of researchers at the World Health Organization (WHO) identified potential health threats from dangerous viruses among which was one titled Disease X, an unknown pathogen yet to be discovered (where SARS-Cov-2 would fit). [7] The same article explains that the alleviation of such a disease was possible with something like a panviral drug – a drug that works broadly within or across virus families. The problem was that no one was going to pay for its development – for pharmaceutical companies, it is a terrible business proposition. Such a solution requires a lot of resources, but offers little in return, unlike drugs for diabetes or high blood pressure that require contentious treatments, this potential panviral drug was supposed to be taken only once, and would not generate a steady profit. Also, as it would be developed based on a possibility of such a disease, its use would not be guaranteed.

It seems clear that, collectively, we can overcome many obstacles, but we have built a system that does not allow us to use science, technology, and progress for the good of the whole planet – it is rather centered around profit and speculative economy. In conspiracy theories, science and progress are presented as a force of evil – the 5G network is going to do physical harm to humans and allow the abuse of our privacy. To disprove that theory, shouldn’t we just prove that, on the contrary, science can and will work in our favor, by actually changing the direction of technological and scientific innovation? Why can’t we democratize the benefits of progress?

Bill Gates and Partial Truths

Sometimes a political narrative or an argument meant to deceive us might be able to do exactly that because it contains partial truths that it uses to build a structure that would cover up remaining obvious falsities. One example might be the role of Bill Gates in the conspiracies. In them, he is an evil actor who has a perverted desire to chip and control the entire population. I don’t claim that this is a partial truth because of his initiative called Digital Identity Alliance that people see as evidence of his intentions, but more because he tends to circumvent democratic processes to establish a society of his liking. 

For example, the Gates’ initiative to reform the educational system in the US through his foundation with agendas worth several billion dollars with insufficient participation of experts in education eventually does more harm than good. [8] His home state of Washington voted against the opening of public charter schools (expensive schools that work independently from the traditional school system and aim at providing high-quality education) three times, in 1996, 2000 and 2004. The will of people was finally shifted in the fourth voting, after an aggressive pro-charter school campaign supported with $3.053 million from Gates. [9] Similar public policy proposals come from other billionaires, such as Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla, who advocates for the construction of hyperloop tunnels in Los Angeles that rather than offering a public transportation service favors the use of motor vehicles (which directly benefits his production of electric cars). [10]

Democracy is indeed in danger, conspiracy theorists are concerned about powerful and wealthy men who make an important decision for us behind closed doors – but they, unfortunately, misplace the actual risk. We should be rather worried about the removal of the politics from the political. This is exactly what brought Donald Trump to power – he claims to be a great president not because of his politics, but because of his ability to make great deals. He vowed to use his business skills to run the country and his talent for accumulating wealth was supposed to lead to a great improvement of well-being for all Americans. Political theorist Wendy Brown points out that Trump’s promise to drain the swamp in Washington does not refer to corruption and lobbying, but the removal of democracy and politics from the process. [11]

I do think that we should be concerned with the symbolic and actual power that an entrepreneur, who is not even a health expert, has in this health crisis – his opinion on the type of vaccine that should be produced, the way the crisis should be handled and mitigated, is not to  be taken at face value. We must bring democracy and politics back into our public life and develop a global mechanism that would assure health and well-being for all, with the participation of all. So, rather than ridiculing people who are emotionally invested in conspiracy theories, we can have a discussion and help them articulate their concerns into real social and political demands, if that is possible.



[1] Annabel Bligh, “Expert Guide to Conspiracy Theories Part 5 – How Dangerous Are They?” The Anhill, Accessed April 13, 2020. https://shows.acast.com/anthill/episodes/expert-guide-to-conspiracy-theories-part-5-how-dangerous-are.

[2]Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988), 347–60.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism (London: Penguin Books, 2015).

[4] Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping,” 356.

[5] Ángel Luis Lara, “Causalidad de la pandemia, cualidad de la catástrofe,” El Diario, March 29, 2020, sec. Opinión y blogs, https://www.eldiario.es/interferencias/Causalidad-pandemia-cualidad-catastrofe_6_1010758925.html.

[6] European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, “Cloth Masks and Mask Sterilisation as Options in Case of Shortage of Surgical Masks and Respirators — 26 March 2020,” Technological report (Stockholm: ECDC, 2020), 2.

[7] Jennifer Kahn, “How Scientists Could Stop the Next Pandemic Before It Starts,” The New York Times, April 21, 2020, sec. Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/21/magazine/pandemic-vaccine.html.

[8] Brian M. Stecher et al., “Improving Teaching Effectiveness: Final Report, The Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Through 2015–2016,” Policy Report (Santa Monica: RAND, 2018), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2242.html.

[9]  Valerie Strauss, “Bill Gates, Other Billionaires Funding Charter Effort in Washington State,” Washington Post, October 12, 2012, sec. Answer Sheet, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2012/10/12/bill-gates-other-billionaires-funding-charter-effort-in-washington-state/.

[10] Kevin Roose, “Elon Musk’s Hyperloop Is a Political Manifesto, Not Just a Tech Trick,” Intelligencer, August 13, 2013, sec. White men with money, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2013/08/musks-hyperloop-is-a-political-manifesto.html.

[11] Wendy Brown, “Demokratie unter Beschuss: Donald Trump und der apokalyptische Populismus,” Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, no. 7 (2017): 46–60.

Picture: Tim, Flickr

Leave a Reply