Science Denial and Conspiracy Theory all in one

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Anti-masker. Another neologism with its genesis in the US, that is now on the rise in the UK, as we belatedly adopt the same minimum safety measures that have been in place across Europe and elsewhere for months. But who are the anti-maskers, why are they determined to ignore the science and wealth of evidence from other countries on the efficacy of these measures? And why has the simple issue of wearing a mask for twenty minutes at the supermarket been blown completely out of proportion and politicised?

Anti-masker has a ring of other recent terms, such as birther (someone who maintains Obama was not born in the US), 9/11 truthers ( who maintain that the World Trade Centre atrocity was a false-flag operation), climate science denier, science denier or even simply denier (someone who believes climate change isn’t real or a hoax). Looking at the posts on social media, it seems that one follows the other in a surprising way, so some anti-maskers are also climate deniers, and even extend in some cases to resort to the same sort of justification.

Given the medical and scientific consensus on the effectiveness of masks in combination with other methods to mitigate the risk of contagion, you would think it would take some considered effort to find that tiny minority of contrarian health professionals, debunked research and frankly incredible conspiracies that argue against it. But this isn’t the case. Social media algorithms will identify a user’s predilection to certain points of view and will therefore serve them up without any effort for the user. Before long, looking at these ‘independent sources’, it seems to the user that this tiny minority is in fact a ‘censored’ or ‘silent majority’ when actually the opposite is the case. Rather than being the independent thinkers they claim to be (wake-up, sheeple!) they are locked inside an artificially created bubble. From Google searches to FaceBook and suggested YouTube videos, their content will be increasingly one-sided. In effect, they are being radicalised.

It’s quite possible that someone trying to innocently research mask wearing will see an anti-mask video, LIKE it, and then in the next day’s feed, they will see others with the same opinion, interspersed with 9/11 and climate denial videos… and you’re away. You can try this for yourself — and watch how YouTube for example will change the content it presents to you. Like a few more… and the bias will increase. (Don’t worry, you can always use the feedback button on suggested posts to put your preferences back later).

One of the unfortunate effects of social media which has fed back into mass media is the importance given to individual opinion. Online and even on the BBC, we can see uninformed and unqualified pundits being put up in opposition to experts and scientists, with their sometimes wholly irrational opinion given equal weight. The broadcasters’ desperate need to appear to be neutral creates a dichotomy where none actually exists. Vox-pops now don’t phrase the questions to ask about what someone thinks or feels, but the unprepared member of the public can now relate all kinds of totally incorrect ‘facts’ and reach conclusions with no correction from the interviewer. We have seen over the past few years how such reports can be edited to give the impression that there is a ‘silent majority’ — where in fact these radical points of view are shared by practically no-one.

I say this in full awareness that I am writing an article for a social media platform, and anti-maskers reading this would accuse me of being naive, of blindly following the masses. I’m naive in that I respect the consensus of opinion coming from experts in the fields of epidemiology and medicine as I am not qualified in either of those areas. I wouldn’t give any credence to a lone doctor on YouTube who says that COVID isn’t dangerous, that we shouldn’t be wearing masks and that hydroxychloroquine is a miracle treatment — who also believes that big pharma are using alien DNA in drugs, or that people are catching STDs from sex demons.

Over the past few days, after I replied to a tweet from someone I formerly followed who was encouraging people to ‘rebel’ against social distancing and other regulations, I’ve been engaging with some of the more reasonable or at least less offensive of the replies I received. On the different and parallel threads that were generated, I was sent the same memes and quotes repeatedly and independently. The sources had all already been thoroughly debunked and could be refuted on a single Google search. Yet in every case when presented with the truth, the individual either blocked or resorted to abuse.

I was shaking their beliefs to the point of cognitive dissonance, which didn’t win any arguments, and only resulted in them fitting me into one of their pre-constructed categories (‘government shill’, ‘leftie’, ‘communist’ etc). All I wanted to do was instil a sliver of doubt, just a ‘what if’ that might encourage them to observe the safety regulations in spite of their beliefs. But what I was doing even in a metred way was challenging not their constructed identity or worldview, but their actual reality.

A lot of what I’ve seen with the anti-maskers uses precisely the same tactics as climate science deniers. It’s no coincidence that rather than reply with multiple scientists and sources, individuals came back with the same ones — the ones they had been fed. In their bubbles, the sources that they claim are being silenced, censored or cancelled are all they see. This is a constant reinforcement loop. Acknowledged or reliable sources are cherry picked to absurdity — for example someone quoting the number of people who had died from COVID-19 with no known co-morbidities as the actual figure, or quoting the same government minister they say is lying to them on inaccuracies in the mortality reports — forgetting that there is an acknowledged mass under reporting of deaths in the first place. This is immediately reminiscent of the Oxford email and hockey-stick ‘controversies’ constantly quoted by climate science deniers.

It can seem unbelievable — why would anyone, faced with such overwhelming evidence, put themselves, their loved ones, and their communities at risk by not following the simplest of rules put in place to protect them? They are referred to as ‘COVIDiots’, as acting like obstinent children, being selfish and only concerned with their own personal freedoms — none of which helps. We have to acknowledge that we are seeing the situation from our own perceived reality too. How do we bridge that gap and convince them to act in a socially responsible manner?

When facing the same problem with science deniers, campaigners have tried to emphasise personal stories and direct experience rather than try to present more evidence, and there is some indication that this approach may sometimes be effective. It does seem that this is the one element that most of these individuals lack — they don’t know anyone in their immediate social circles who has contracted or died as a result of COVID-19. But then nor do they know anyone who has contracted ‘re-breathed bronchitis’ or brain damage as a result of re-breathing CO2 from mask wearing, but they wholeheartedly believe this nonsense and not that 150,000 people in the US have died from COVID-19.

Is this even some form of selective empathy, or is it just that they give credence to these anonymous sources just because of where they originated — or are attached with that universal imprimatur — “they tried to ban this”. One of the key aspects of the conspiracy theory is this idea that the contrarians or those that rebel against the majority opinion are banned, vendors or cancelled. But evidently this is not the case or these posts simply wouldn’t exist in the first place.

I know what it’s like to be told to censor by the establishment. A few years ago UKIP sent the police to my home to stop me from tweeting links to their official party sites where the most offensive of their policies could be seen. I didn’t do what the police told me, the story got into the press, the tweet went viral, my MP and a peer mentioned me in the House of Commons and I got an apology from the Chief Constable. There was even an episode of BBC Radio 4 The Now Show dedicated to the story. But what happened to me is literally nothing compared to those political prisoners across the world, from the US to China, who are tortured and languish in prison for doing a lot less than I.

But in these COVID conspiracies, there never was a ban. Some of the scientists may have lost their jobs or been discredited in peer review, but the fact they are still able to publish their opinions to a mass audience demonstrates that no such restriction exists. Where it comes to disinformation about public health, then I believe that there actually should be a ban. It’s fine to hold such beliefs, to subject them to debate and scrutiny and the scientific process. But when they have been demonstrated to be false and yet are still publicised as true, and their followers and others could come to serious harm as a result, I believe a civic duty exists to remove them or at the very least post a warning.

And this week this very thing happened to President Trump’s official campaign. Facebook and Twitter disabled their accounts over a video of Trump on Fox and Friends saying that children were “almost immune” to COVID-19. The social media companies judged this to be dangerously misleading.

Of course, the anti-maskers believe that this very act validates Trump’s words and vindicates their position.

The shadow establishment has banned the President from speaking the truth on the COVID hoax!

Who are you going to believe?

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