The Internet is awash with conspiracy theories on just about every topic. In the United States of America, we watched how politicians mastered the art of spinning conspiracy theories that served to undermine public confidence in institutions; organisations that have been relied on not only by Americans but the rest of the world for guidance.
One example of a globally recognised institution that has had its reputation shaken by conspiracy theories and the bad actions of political hacks, who placed political expediency over national and global interests, is the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Once seen as the gold standard, the CDC’s determinations on issues of health and related matters were presumed to be the result of scientific, high-quality interrogation.
Sadly, however, the CDC is still trying to free itself from the cloud of suspicion that hovered over it under the Trump administration. At that time, the institution appeared to be used on several occasions to spread incomplete and sometimes less than authentic information to the public.
The agency articulates that it was created to protect America from health, safety, and security threats, both foreign and in the United States. Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable, or preventable, human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same.
Its mission – “conducts critical science and provides health information that protects” against dangerous health threats. We all know when America sneezes, we who operate in their backyard are likely to catch a cold.
And so, when America got it horribly wrong in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was highly likely we in Barbados and the region would feel the effects.
When the former American president, had full use of his social media platforms, he seldom used them for good. Often, he promoted the very things the CDC was trying to debunk.
Instead, his Twitter account, which was followed by millions of The United States and around the world, was used to spin half-truths, misinformation and even lies. It was his frequently baseless views of the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic that probably resulted in the most damage.
He relegated the threat which the disease posed. He called it a hoax and said it would just “disappear”. And while he must be credited to pushing pharmaceutical giants to create vaccines against COVID-19, his inaction on several other fronts led to the disease killing over half of a million Americans.
The former American leader failed to promote necessary, yet simple actions such as mask-wearing and social distancing. His conspiracy theories took hold not only in the US but around the world. He and his minions pushed the ideas that public health protocols were an infringement on personal rights, rather than an act to protect the whole of society.
As was the case with some zealous religious leaders in the United States who argued that COVID-19 public health measures were an overt act to deny religious freedoms, a similar occurrence has happened here.
The seeds that have been planted by conspiracy theorists have taken root and commonsense has been displaced by narrow self-interests. We are not surprised by recent revelations that several members of a church and some of their relatives have become infected with COVID-19.
Reports that these church members followed their leaders’ contention that they would be protected by God, and so may have failed to comply with established protocols designed to keep them and others around them safe, have not come as a shock.
It is yet to be determined exactly how so many members of the congregation and their families became infected. But we can deduce that COVID-19 was certainly not “planted” and would most likely have occurred due to lapses in protocols.
Global institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the regional offshoot, the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO), have been forced to dedicate sections of their public information campaigns to respond to a range of misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic.
With the proliferation of social media, anyone can create the most ridiculous theories, place them on the Internet, and they can take root in a way that no mass media campaign can meaningfully rebut.
According to PAHO, the COVID-19 outbreak and responses have been accompanied by a massive infodemic. PAHO refers to infodemic as an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. Infodemic, the institution says, relates to a large increase in the volume of information associated with a specific topic and whose growth can occur exponentially in a short period of time due to a specific incident, such as the current pandemic.
The regional health body argued that in this situation, misinformation and rumours appear on the scene, along with manipulation of information with doubtful intent. In the information age, this phenomenon is then amplified through social networks, spreading much farther and faster like a virus.
What is necessary is for individuals to arm themselves with the knowledge to distinguish the difference between what is fake information and what is authentic and verifiable. This can only occur when people are widely read, and therefore, are in a position to assimilate or dismiss information that is presented to them.