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15.4.2: Conspiracies and Theories- Questions to Ask

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    Masks worn during experiments with plague. Manila, Philippines (1912).
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Image: Masks worn during experiments with plague. Manila, Philippines (1912). Original image from National Museum of Health and Medicine. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel, Public Domain (CC0).

    This page reproduces two articles that were originally published by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom, and are provided here under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

    Please read both articles by Marshall Allen below.

    If you end up quoting or paraphrasing from either of these sources in your assignments for this class, please cite the original articles:

    Allen, Marshall. “I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked about the Viral ‘Plandemic’ Video.” ProPublica, 9 May 2020,

    Allen, Marshall. “Immune to Evidence: How Dangerous Coronavirus Conspiracies Spread.” ProPublica, 17 May 2020,

    I’m an Investigative Journalist. These Are the Questions I Asked about the Viral ‘Plandemic’ Video.

    Marshall Allen, ProPublica, 9 May 2020

    The links to the viral video “Plandemic” started showing up in my Facebook feed Wednesday. “Very interesting,” one of my friends wrote about it. I saw several subsequent posts about it, and then my brother texted me, “Got a sec?”

    My brother is a pastor in Colorado and had someone he respects urge him to watch “Plandemic,” a 26-minute video that promises to reveal the “hidden agenda” behind the COVID-19 pandemic. I called him and he shared his concern: People seem to be taking the conspiracy theories presented in “Plandemic” seriously. He wondered if I could write something up that he could pass along to them, to help people distinguish between sound reporting and conspiracy thinking or propaganda.

    So I watched “Plandemic.” I did not find it credible, as I will explain below. YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo have since removed it from their platforms for violating their guidelines. Now it’s available on its own site.

    Sensational videos, memes, rants and more about COVID-19 are likely to keep coming. With society polarized and deep distrust of the media, the government and other institutions, such content is a way for bad actors to sow discord, mostly via social media. We saw it with Russia in the 2016 election and we should expect it to continue.

    But what surprised me is how easily “Plandemic” sank its hooks into some of my friends. My brother also felt alarmed that his own church members and leaders in other churches might be tempted to buy into it.

    The purpose of this column is not to skewer “Plandemic.” My goal is to offer some criteria for sifting through all the content we see every day, so we can tell the difference between fair reporting and something so biased it should not be taken seriously.

    Here’s a checklist, some of which I shared with my friends on Facebook, to help interrogate any content — and that includes what we publish at ProPublica.

    Is the Presentation One-Sided?

    There’s never just one side to a story. I mentioned this point in 2018 when I wrote about my faith and the biblical basis for investigative reporting. One of my favorite Proverbs says, “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him.” So a fair presentation should at least acknowledge opposing points of view.

    I didn’t see this in “Plandemic,” so I called the filmmaker, Mikki Willis, who is also the film’s narrator, to ask him whether I had somehow missed the other side of the argument. I had not. “The other side of the argument plays 24/7 on every screen in every airport and on every phone and in every home,” Willis said. “The people are only seeing one side of the story all the time. This is the other side of the story. This is not a piece that’s intended to be perfectly balanced.”

    I asked Willis if it was fair to call his film “propaganda,” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

    He said he doesn’t feel there’s anything misleading in his film, but otherwise the definition fits. And based on that definition he feels 100% of news reporting is propaganda. “What isn’t propaganda these days?” he asked. “In that sense, what we’re doing is fighting fire with fire.”

    Is There an Independent Pursuit of the Truth?

    The star of “Plandemic,” medical researcher Judy Mikovits, is controversial. The magazine Science reports that it published and then retracted one of her papers in 2011. A search warrant provided to ProPublica by one of her former attorneys shows she was fired from her position at Whittemore Peterson Institute, a research center in Nevada, in September 2011. Then she allegedly stole notebooks and a laptop computer from the Institute, the search warrant said, leading to an arrest warrant for alleged possession of stolen property and unlawful taking of computer data. She was arrested on Nov. 18, 2011, but denied wrongdoing. The charges were dropped.

    But “Plandemic” ignores or brushes past these facts and portrays her as an embattled whistleblower. “So you made a discovery that conflicted with the agreed-upon narrative?” Willis says to Mikovits, introducing her as a victim. “And for that, they did everything in their powers to destroy your life.”

    A typical viewer is not going to know the details about Mikovits’ background. But as the primary source of controversial information being presented as fact, it’s worth an online search. The fact-checking site PolitiFact details her arrest and criminal charges. Clearly, there’s more to her story than what’s presented in “Plandemic.” That should give us pause when we assess its credibility.

    Is There a Careful Adherence to the Facts?

    In “Plandemic,” Willis asks Mikovits about her arrest: “What did they charge you with?”

    “Nothing,” she replies. “I was held in jail, with no charges.”

    Being charged with a crime is one of those concrete facts that we can check out. Science magazine reported Mikovits’ arrest and felony charge. I also found a civil lawsuit she filed against the Whittemore Peterson Institute in 2014 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California. “Mikovits was arrested on criminal charges…” her complaint says  in the case, which was eventually dismissed.

    I asked Willis about the apparent discrepancy, where she said in his film that she wasn’t charged, when court documents show that she was charged. After my inquiry, he said he spoke to Mikovits and now feels it is clear that she meant that the charges were dropped.

    I tracked down Mikovits and she said what she meant in the film is that there were no charges of any type of wrongdoing that would have led to her being charged with being a fugitive from justice. She admitted that all the controversy has been hard for her to sort out. “I’ve been confused for a decade,” she told me. She said she would try to be more clear in the future when she talks about the criminal charge: “I’ll try to learn to say it differently,” she said.

    This underscores the importance of careful verification, and it distinguishes the craft of journalism from other forms of information sharing. People often speak imprecisely when they’re telling their stories. It’s our duty to nail down precisely what they do and do not mean, and verify it independently. If we don’t, we risk undermining their credibility and ours. That’s in part why we at ProPublica and many other journalists often link directly to our underlying source documents, so you can verify the information yourself.

    Are Those Accused Allowed to Respond?

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is one of the nation’s leaders in the response to the coronavirus. In “Plandemic,” Mikovits accuses Fauci of a cover-up and of paying off people who perpetrate fraud, among other things. PolitiFact found no evidence to support the allegations against Fauci.

    Every time I write a story that accuses someone of wrongdoing I call them and urge them to explain the situation from their perspective. This is standard in mainstream journalism. Sometimes I’ve gone to extreme lengths to get comments from someone who will be portrayed unfavorably in my story — traveling to another state and showing up at their office and their home and leaving a note if they are not there to meet me. “Plandemic” doesn’t indicate whether the filmmakers reached out to Fauci for his version of the story. So I asked Willis about it. “We did not,” he told me.

    Are All Sources Named and Cited, and if Not, Is the Reason Explained?

    All sources should be identified, with their credentials, so viewers can verify their expertise or possible biases. If they can’t be for some reason, then that should be explained. “Plandemic” features unnamed people in medical scrubs, presented as doctors, saying they’re being wrongly pressured to add COVID-19 on people’s death certificates or are not being allowed to use the drug hydroxychloroquine to treat patients. But the speakers are not named, so we can’t really tell who they are, or even if they are doctors at all. That makes it impossible to tell if they are credible.

    I asked Willis why he didn’t name those people. He told me he was in a hurry to release the 26-minute version of “Plandemic,” but the doctors will be named in the final version. “We should have done that,” he said.

    Does the Work Claim Some Secret Knowledge?

    “Plandemic” calls itself a documentary that reveals “the hidden agenda behind COVID-19.” We are in the midst of a global pandemic where few people in the world can figure out what is happening or the right way to respond, let alone agendas. We have almost every journalist in the country writing about this. And if the truth about a conspiracy is out there, many people have an incentive to share it. But “Plandemic” would like us to think it’s presenting some exclusive bit of secret knowledge that is going to get at the real story. That’s not likely.

    Plus, to be honest, there were so many conspiratorial details stacked on top of each other in the film I couldn’t keep them straight. When I spoke to Willis I told him I was having a hard time understanding his point. Then I took a stab at what I thought was the main thrust of his argument. “Are you saying that powerful people planned the pandemic and made it happen so they could get rich by making everyone get vaccines?” I asked.

    It turns out Willis isn’t sure either. “We’re in the exploratory phase,” he told me. “I don’t know, to be clear, if it’s an intentional or naturally occurring situation. I have no idea.”

    Then he went on to say that the pandemic is being politicized and used to take away our civil liberties and leverage other political policies. “Certain forces” have latched onto the situation, he said. “It’s too fishy.”

    He had me at, “I have no idea.” That sums it up. This is a vast pandemic and massive catastrophe. Our country wasn’t prepared for it, and the response by our top leaders has been disjointed. We’re restricted to our homes. Many people have lost their jobs and some are afraid or sick or dying. That makes us vulnerable to exploitation by people who will present inaccurate or intellectually dishonest information that promises to tell us the truth.

    Perhaps “Plandemic” is guilty of sloppy storytelling, or maybe people really do believe the things they’re saying in the video. Or perhaps they’re being intentionally dishonest, or it’s a biased connecting of the dots rooted in personal and professional grievances. I don’t know because I can’t get inside their heads to judge their motives.

    Ultimately, we’re all going to need to be more savvy consumers when it comes to information, no matter how slickly it’s presented. This may be but a signal of what’s to come in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, when memes and ads of unknown origin come across our social media feeds. There are standards for judging the credibility of the media we take in every day, so let’s apply them.

    “Immune to Evidence”: How Dangerous Coronavirus Conspiracies Spread

    Marshall Allen, ProPublica, 17 May 2020

    Stephan Lewandowsky studies the way people think, and in particular, why they engage in conspiracy theories. So when the cognitive scientist from England’s University of Bristol observes wild speculation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he sees how it fits into the historical pattern of misinformation and fake news.

    I recently wrote about the viral video “Plandemic” as an investigative reporter assessing the range of unsubstantiated COVID-19 allegations put forth by a controversial researcher. Lewandowsky comes at the video and others like it from a science-based perspective. He is one of the authors of “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,” which explains the traits of conspiratorial thinking.

    Conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be proliferating, and some may even be taking root. So I asked Lewandowsky to share how he identifies and understands them, and what we can do to sort through the confusion. The interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

    What’s the difference between a real conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?

    A real conspiracy actually exists, and it is usually uncovered by journalists, whistleblowers, document dumps from a corporation or government, or it’s discovered by a government agency. The Volkswagen emissions scandal, for example, was discovered by conventional ways when some engineers discovered an anomaly in a report. It was all mundane — normal people having normal observations based on data. They said, “Hang on, something’s funny here,” and then it unraveled. The same is true for the Iran-contra scandal. That broke via a newspaper in Lebanon. True conspiracies are often uncovered through the media. In Watergate, it was journalists not taking “no” for an answer.

    A conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is discussed at length on the internet by people who are not bona fide journalists or government officials or whistleblowers in an organization or investigative committees of regulators. They’re completely independent sources, individuals who self-nominate and put themselves forward as being in possession of the truth. In principle, that could be true. But then if you look at the way these people think and talk and communicate, you discover their cognition is different from what I would call conventional cognition.

    What are some differences between conventional and conspiratorial thinking?

    You can start with healthy skepticism vs. overriding suspicion. As a scientist, I’m obviously skeptical. I’m questioning anything people say. I look at my own data and other people’s data with a skeptical eye. But after skeptics have been skeptical, they are quite capable of accepting evidence. Once something has withstood scrutiny, you accept it. Otherwise you’re in a state of complete nihilism and you can’t believe anything.

    That crucial second step of acceptance is absent in conspiracy theorists. That is where conspiracy theorists are different. Their skepticism is a bottomless, never-ending pit of skepticism about anything related to the official account. And that skepticism is accompanied by extreme gullibility to anything related to the conspiracy. It’s an imbalance between skepticism for anything an official may say and complete gullibility for something some random dude on the internet will tweet out. It’s that imbalance that differentiates conspiracy thinking from standard cognition.

    Conspiracy thinking is immune to evidence. In the “Plandemic” video, the absence of evidence is twisted to be seen to be as evidence for the theory. They say the cover-up is so perfect that you will never find out about it. That’s the opposite of rational thinking. Usually when you think of a hypothesis, you think of the evidence. And if there’s zero evidence, you give it up or say there is no evidence for it.

    Conspiracy theorists may also simultaneously believe things that are contradictory. In the “Plandemic” video, for example, they say COVID-19 both came from a Wuhan lab and that we’re all infected with the disease from vaccinations. They’re making both claims, and they don’t hang together.

    More generally, conspiracy theorists show this contradictory thinking by presenting themselves as both victims and heroes. They see themselves as these heroes in possession of the truth. But they also see themselves as victims. They feel they are being persecuted by this evil establishment or the deep state or whatever it is.

    Why do you think some conspiracy theories are so popular?

    Some people find comfort in resorting to a conspiracy theory whenever they have a sense of a loss of control or they’re confronted with a major adverse event that no one has control over. So every time there’s a mass shooting in the U.S., I can guarantee you ahead of time that there will be a conspiracy theory about it.

    So you would expect conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. That doesn’t make them any less harmful. Here in the United Kingdom, people are burning 5G cell towers because of this extreme idea that 5G has something to do with causing COVID-19. More than 70 cell towers have gone up in flames because of this conspiracy theory.

    Is conspiracy thinking at an all time high?

    Historical records show that there were rampant conspiracy theories going on in the Middle Ages when the plague hit Europe. It was anti-Semitism at the time. That tends to be part and parcel of pandemics. People engage in conspiracies that involve some sort of “othering” of people. During previous pandemics, people chased doctors down the street because they thought they were responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, now a lot of antagonism is directed at Asians, because the pandemic started in China. The internet is helping the spread of conspiracy theories. It’s much easier now than it was 30 years ago. But it’s difficult to say we have more now.

    Are conservatives or liberals any more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking?

    There is a lot of research on this and political conspiracy theories tend to be most associated with extreme political views, on the right or the left. But if you quantify it, you frequently find more on the right than the left.

    How do we talk to the conspiracy theorists in our lives?

    It’s extremely difficult. In terms of strategy, the best people to talk to are people who are not conspiracy theorists. The vast majority of people are grateful for the debunking and responsive to it. That should be your target of communication if you have a choice. The hardcore conspiracy theorists are unlikely to change their minds. They will take what you say and display considerable ingenuity in twisting it and using it against you. On Twitter, I block them immediately because I’m concerned about my ability to have a rational conversation and I don’t want others to violate that right.

    How do we prevent the spread of conspiracy theories?

    By trying to inoculate the public against them. Telling the public ahead of time: Look, there are people who believe these conspiracy theories. They invent this stuff. When they invent it they exhibit these characteristics of misguided cognition. You can go through the traits we mention in our handbook, like incoherence, immunity to evidence, overriding suspicion and connecting random dots into a pattern. The best thing to do is tell the public how they can spot conspiracy theories and how they can protect themselves.

    Are you aware of any cases where the conspiracy theorists turned out to be right?

    There are tens of thousands of conspiracy theories out there, so I haven’t checked them all. But if you look at actual conspiracies, Volkswagen, Iran-contra, Watergate — the real conspiracies — they were uncovered by conventional cognition. There weren’t people there who took the absence of evidence to be evidence for the theory, or who reinterpreted contrary evidence to somehow support their theory. I’m not aware of any conspiracy theorists discovering something where they turn out to be correct.

    Source Information

    Using Research to Support Scholarly Writing- A Critical Thinking and Research Methodology Sandbox for First year Composition (Bloom, et. al.)

    15.4.2: Conspiracies and Theories- Questions to Ask is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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