Understanding the Rhetoric of COVID Conspiracy Theories—and How to Respond Healthily

Understanding the Rhetoric of COVID Conspiracy Theories—and How to Respond Healthily

I was going to write about something else this week. I had a great thing all cued up. But then my personal FB newsfeed blew up with my Facebook friends dealing with people, most of whom identify as some form of more conservative brand of Christian, hawking conspiracy theories. Most of the rhetoric surrounded this “Plandemic” video, which has since been removed from both YouTube and Facebook because of its misinformation. Once this gained critical mass, I know I needed to unwrap COVID conspiracy theory rhetoric and its complicated reception in today’s blog post. (So that’s what I’m doing.)

A Few Disclaimers Before I Start

As I’ve explained before, I am not THAT kind of doctor. I’m also not here to respond directly here to the claims in the YouTube video (you can find excellent responses along those lines in lots of places). Nor am I trying to judge or shame those who have shared the link to this misinformation. We’ve all been there where we’ve shared links to things we’ve later found out was false. It’s easy to do. But how we respond when someone helps us get more context and understanding–well, that’s a totally different thing.

One other quick note that I’m not trying to duplicate the fine work Christianity Today did this week (I posted that over on the Assertive Spirituality FB page this week) in drawing attention to the way that gullibility is not a Christian virtue. I’m also not trying to analyze this from a Christian theological perspective—this article does a great job comparing conspiracy rhetoric to Gnosticism, which orthodox Christianity has long considered to be a heresy.

Also, this stuff gets a little complicated, so thanks for hanging in there with me on the length. The detail is important!

Why I’m Writing and Such

Anyway, let’s get into it. What I AM trying to do is to help you to understand a little bit about the history and nature of conspiracy rhetoric and how it happens that people, many of which are kind and generous in nature, may end up buying into unfounded conspiracy rhetoric, and to offer some tips to help you respond.

My Background and Credentials and Such

I am doing this as someone with a PhD in Communication who studies and teaches about stress, trauma, and conflict communication and was fortunate to take a grad course in the rhetoric of conspiracy during my PhD.

I’m also doing this as someone who grew up as a pastor’s kid in a moderate denomination and understands from the inside out how this kind of stuff works.

Why I Too Was Uncomfortable When Learning about Conspiracy Rhetoric

To be honest, when I took that course in the rhetoric of conspiracy, I was deeply uncomfortable with the fact that at least one of the articles we read dealt with Christians participating in anti-science conspiracy theories. Between that and seeing how conspiracy rhetoric has been rightfully identified as a factor in both the Reformation and in the American Revolution, it was a rather uncomfortable semester for me.

Because, let’s face it, it’s not comfortable seeing how “our people” have long, even in legitimate movements that have a lot of good in them, have often also gone off the deep end.

It’s wayyyy more comfortable to distance ourselves from those coping mechanisms both we and our ancestors share that we deem irrational.

The Rhetoric of Conspiracy and Moral/Political Disgusts

The thing is that that very impulse we all share—the desire to morally and physically distance ourselves from those things we have moral and political disgusts for—is what drives people to accept and participate in conspiracy rhetoric. I have previously discussed the neurobiology of moral and political disgusts in a long series starting here.

The thing is that it’s very easy, as I’ve also discussed before, to put “us,” whoever “us” is, in the “moral” category, and “those other folks” in the “immoral” category for whatever reason. Unfortunately, unscrupulous leaders know this, and often use the extreme language of “god terms” and “devil terms” (which I’ve also written a series on, beginning here) to get us to applaud some people who are “on our side” and to form moral disgusts about other people who are “on the other side.”

Moderate Evangelical-Centrism and Moral Disgusts

As I’ve said before, growing up in a moderate denomination that highly valued education and full engagement with the world, I’ve seen this impulse from an intriguing (if also disturbing) vantage point. (I’ve talked about this and how it connects to what I call “white Evangelical-centrism here.)

On one hand, I’ve seen my peops engaging in moral disgusts to separate ourselves from being associated with televangelists and other fundamentalist Christians we found extreme, including those who saw engagement with science and expertise as threats.

On the other hand, my denomination highly valued Christian education over “secular education”—and however thoughtful I can see us being about it, at base I can see now that at base this impulse wasn’t only about rational thoughtfulness but also at least partly about moral disgusts and a desire to associate mostly with “our own kind.”

How “Bubble Thinking” Left Us Vulnerable

To be fair, there were some really good things about our own kind and some unhealthy things outside our “bubble.” But that impulse wasn’t really fully “pure” or “rational” either.

I can see now that at root, what I’ve talked about earlier is true—we were possibly just as morally disgusted by the “liberal elites” as we were by the more fundamentalist Christians.

And looking at it now, it makes sense that because of that, in the current climate, some of the people I know, even seeming “moderates” who are quite well educated, would be falling prey to conspiracy rhetoric about COVID as well as other unhealthy tendencies spurred on by the current political climate.

What Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories Thrive On

After all, unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric thrives in conditions in which people see at least some forms of expertise as “other” and morally disgusting.

It also thrives in situations where people feel a lot of shame about experts knowing more than they do. (And since most people, including those with advanced degrees have often felt “put down” by others in academia, most people are vulnerable to this kind of feeling “less than” shame.)

And last but not least, conspiracy rhetoric thrives in conditions in which people feel a lot of uncertainty about what’s ahead. As I’ve discussed before, with a lot of stress in this global crisis, people are looking for stable leaders who know a lot—and let’s face it, the scientific process moves slow, and no one has all the answers here. This is a great article that gets into this.

Unwrapping the Marks of Conspiracy Rhetoric

I don’t want to make this too long (thanks for hanging in there!), but here’s what conspiracy rhetoric usually does: it tells a story that sounds like secret knowledge, that seems plausible, and that often appeals to people with suspicions of uncertainty and of at least some of those in charge.

And let’s be clear: sometimes there are provable conspiracies. People sometimes work together in nefarious and corrupt ways to try to exploit and take advantage of people. (For instance, paid trolls in other countries actually have been trying to influence political systems in the last few years. This is a provable type of conspiracy—entire troll farms have been caught at this.)

Discerning Between Detecting Real Conspiracies and Unhealthy Conspiracy Theory

The difference between actual conspiracies and so much of the time-worn conspiracy theory rhetoric, though, is that actual conspiracies can, with time and effort and luck, be factually proven.

Defining First-Order Realities and Second-Order Realities

In the study of perceptions, we talk about the difference between first-order realities (i.e., observable facts or data) and second-order realities (i.e., interpretations of that data).

The Difference Between Detection and Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories

Actual conspiracies can be proven through first-order realities to create logical second-order realities, whereas unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric, if you confront it with first-order realities that would ordinarily mess with its interpretations, will tell you that those things are lies and further evidence that their second-order realities are the “actual truth.”

See, here’s the thing: detection of actual conspiracies tends to consider the source and definitely identifies things as lies as needed, but works hard not to disconfirm first-order realities, whatever their source.

Unheathy conspiracy theory rhetoric, on the other hand, will tell you that first-order realities are to be dismissed if the source is seen to be suspicious, whereas all second order realities from people “on their side” need to be accepted, regardless of what the first-order realities may be.

The Difference Is in the Open-Mindedness to New Evidence

Note the difference here: Healthy conspiracy detection often comes in with suspicion and often takes a side, and sometimes dismisses information if it comes from untrustworthy sources, but also tries to keep an open enough mind to be willing to change their mind if the evidence warrants it.

Unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric exploits pre-existing fears, prejudices, coping mechanisms, and us vs. them logic to make people feel better about themselves and their group at the expense of another group, regardless of whether that other group is actually a problem.

Unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric pretends to care about justice and truth, but actually prefers certainty and feeling potentially superior about knowing to justice and truth.

The Connection Between Unhealthy Conspiracy Theories and Authoritarianism/Covert Abuse

Because of this, unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric is very close to the logic of authoritarianism and of covert abuse—I wrote about how Christians and Christian nice have been enabling these things here.

It’s also really closely related to fascistic rhetoric, for good reason—these folks often abuse conspiracy rhetoric and sow misinformation to discredit potential opponents to their second-reality views in order to gain and maintain power at the expense of others (standard targets are often “the media” who fact-check their sources and educators/experts, if that rings a bell–I talked about this more here).

COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories Are Hurting People

And let’s be absolutely clear: Specifically in the case of this COVID-19 public health emergency, this conspiracy theory misinformation is damaging real people. Conmen and hucksters and other unreliable people purporting to be “real experts” trying to raise their profiles on YouTube are putting out false information. And that’s hurting people.

Who These Conspiracy Theories Are Hurting

In the time of COVID-19, misinformation, including conspiracy theory rhetoric that demonizes even the valid parts of the scientific and medical models, is causing further stress to the actual doctors on the front lines, as this article relates. The same article talks about how it’s causing more deaths to those who believe the conspiracy rhetoric as well.

In this case, if those who believe the conspiracy rhetoric fail to take good precautions, it also puts other vulnerable populations also at risk and increases deaths in non-conspiracy-believing parts of the population.

Not Saying the Medical Model or Science Is Perfect

Now, let’s be clear here: I don’t think the medical model or the scientific method, is perfect, nor do I think its practitioners are perfect. They are deeply human. That’s really the whole point of science—and if you hang out with scientists, especially the kind that don’t have arrogant temperaments, you would see a kind of deep humility in them.

Being in academia I get to see both types—and particularly as someone who studies trauma, which science has started to realize undermines a lot of previous dichotomies between fields, I really get to see both the advantages and the disadvantages of our current scientifically-based systems.

Science and the medical model are not perfect in part because we’re still deeply vulnerable as a society to that which we don’t fully know or understand.

It’s a New Virus, So Of Course No One Will Know Everything

And because this virus is new, even though a bunch of smart people are working on it, there’s going to be a lot of shifts in what we know, and that’s going to feel unstable to a lot of us.

 It’s also, to make it really safe, going to be a long process, most likely, and impatient people, especially those feeling dependent on things “getting back to normal” quickly, are more vulnerable to conspiracy rhetoric that claims to understand and to be able to control that uncertainty.

No Shortcuts to Knowledge, Sadly

All of this is deeply uncomfortable to deal with, and unfortunately, there are no easy shortcuts to figuring out this virus.

Standing Up Against This Stuff Helps Public Health

Here’s what I know to be true in all of this: Having unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric out there unchallenged literally hurts people. I am incredibly thankful that at least some social media sites have responded relatively quickly to remove at least some of it from their sites.

And I am incredibly thankful for those of my friends who have been working to challenge it when they see it. (And completely understand those who have had to conserve their energies by blocking and unfriending people.)

Some Tips on Speaking Up Against Conspiracy Rhetoric Effectively

If you are among those who have the energy to keep speaking up, please do! Here’s a few short tips on how to confront the rhetoric most effectively:

  1. Validate the fears and uncertainty that lie behind the embrace of unhealthy conspiracy theories (without agreeing with the unhealthy conclusions).
  2. Acknowledge that the medical model and scientific methods aren’t fully perfect (while standing firm on what they do right).
  3. AND, and this is possibly the most important, draw attention to the harm this kind of rhetoric does and the further stress and deaths it causes. Rehumanize yourself and others. In the context of this, talk about your own concerns for the lives of those in vulnerable populations and on the front lines, and also for the speaker’s health.

Why Do We Need to Stand Up When We Can

Here’s why we need to keep working against unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric as we’re able to, when we have the energy: the person who posts these things is unlikely to agree with you. They may not like you much for speaking up.

BUT someone else in the audience may be secretly on the fence about the question and CAN be persuaded.

AND it’s possible that your opposition may be what’s needed to get the person to take down the harmful information.

Either or both of these things are wins in the fight for the common good and public health. (Which doesn’t mean that if you’re engaged in other things, or burned out, you have to keep going without rest. Take the rest as you need to! Just come back when you can! It’s a relay marathon!)

One Final Disclaimer

Note that none of this means you have to fully embrace everything that public health experts are telling you—it just means that we should all be balancing trust in expertise with healthy detection around first- and second-order realities. And let’s be honest—there are times when the information is so quickly changing, diffuse, and dense that it’s going to be hard for ALL of us to keep up.

It’s not a perfect situation, friends. Many parts of it suck. But I know this much is true: unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric hurts people.

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s keep doing what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against unhealthy conspiracy theory rhetoric and other unhealthy crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

Looking for more resources toward diagnosing and speaking up against unhealthy rhetoric?

Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates.

This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.

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