Coronavirus, a reality or a huge scam?

Sohail Choudhury

According to research on conspiracy theories by the University of Oxford, about 1 in 5 adults in England believe the coronavirus is to some extent a hoax. In addition, researchers found nearly 3 out of 5 adults in England believe the government is misleading them to some extent about the cause of the virus, and nearly 1 in 10 strongly agree that China developed the coronavirus to destroy the West — which is utterly false.

“A disconcertingly high number of adults in England do not agree with the scientific and governmental consensus on the coronavirus pandemic,” the researchers found.

Lead researcher and psychology professor Daniel Freeman said the pandemic has the necessary ingredients to fuel conspiracy theories, including sustained threat and enforced change. He added that those who believe conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance designed to save lives.

“Those who believe in conspiracy theories also say that they are less likely to accept a vaccination, take a diagnostic test or wear a face mask,” Freeman said. “The beliefs look to be corrosive to our necessary collective response to the crisis. In the wake of the epidemic, mistrust looks to have become mainstream.”

In the United Kingdom, some people have acted on conspiracy theories. More than 100 cellphone towers have been burned amid unfounded conspiracy theories that the new mobile technology known as fifth-generation either spreads the virus or the lockdown is a cover for rolling out 5G.

Stephen Powis, national medical director for England’s National Health Service, called the theories “complete and utter rubbish.”

Powis added that attacking communications infrastructure in the midst of a pandemic was self-destructive.

“I’m absolutely outraged that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency,” he said.

Attempts of extortion

On September 8th, the executive editor of The Verge newspaper received a strange email. “TC Sottek: We would like to inform you that you have been recorded as leaving your home on 3 occasions yesterday. A fine of $59 has been added to your account.”

The fine had increased from $35 on September 1st, when Andrew J. Hawkins, a transportation reporter, received the same email. Both were told to visit for more information.

Unsurprisingly, this was not the US government suddenly taking a more active role in the pandemic. It was a scam. While the links looked legit, the URL was only display text. Once clicked, the link took people to, a non-government domain, then redirected to a scammy website.

The misstep was on full display when Sottek posted the screenshot in a Verge chat and the responses from my colleagues were, roughly “I’d pay $59 to leave my house three times in one day” and “damn i was hoping [] was somehow actually a page.”

Back in March this year, there was another viral myth circulating about the Trump administration issuing a national lockdown. “Please be advised,” it began. “Within 48 to 72 hours the President will evoke what is called the Stafford Act. Stock up on whatever you guys need to make sure you have a two-week supply of everything. Please forward to your network.”

The goal seemed to be to sow panic and fear, and possibly encourage people to stockpile toilet paper before they were barred from entering Trader Joe’s.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a gift to scammers, who’ve capitalized on people’s confusion and fear to bully them into handing over money. Everyone wants to know about the virus — where it started, how it spreads, when a vaccine might be coming — but very few of those questions have answers. The information void is where scams thrive.

It is a sad truth that any health crisis will spawn its own pandemic of misinformation. From students to politicians, many smart people have fallen for dangerous lies spread about the coronavirus.

In the 80s, 90s, and 2000s we saw the spread of dangerous lies about Aids – from the belief that the HIV virus was created by a government laboratory to the idea that the HIV tests were unreliable, and even the spectacularly unfounded theory that it could be treated with goat’s milk. These claims increased risky behavior and exacerbated the crisis.

Now, we have been seeing a fresh inundation of fake news – this time around the coronavirus pandemic. From Facebook to WhatsApp, frequently shared misinformation includes everything from what caused the outbreak to how you can prevent becoming ill.

A  recent report from one province in Iran found that more people had died from drinking industrial-strength alcohol, based on a false claim that it could protect you from coronavirus, than from the virus itself. But even seemingly innocuous ideas could lure you and others into a false sense of security, discouraging you from adhering to government guidelines, and eroding trust in health officials and organizations.

There’s evidence these ideas are sticking. One poll by YouGov and the Economist in March 2020 found 13 percent of Americans believed the Covid-19 crisis was a hoax, for example, while a whopping 49% believed the epidemic might be man-made. And while you might hope that greater brainpower or education would help us to tell fact from fiction, it is easy to find examples of many educated people falling for this false information.

Just consider the writer Kelly Brogan, a prominent coronavirus conspiracy theorist; she has a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied psychiatry at Cornell University. Yet she has shunned clear evidence of the virus’s danger in countries like China and Italy. She even went as far as to question the basic tenets of germ theory itself while endorsing pseudoscientific ideas.

Even some world leaders – who you would hope to have greater discernment when it comes to unfounded rumors – have been guilty of spreading inaccurate information about the risk of the outbreak and promoting unproven remedies that may do more harm than good, leading Twitter and Facebook to take the unprecedented step of removing their posts.

Since March 2020, conspiracy theorists have been using the hashtag #FilmYourHospital with the goal of encouraging people to visit hospitals to take pictures and videos to prove that the coronavirus pandemic is an elaborate hoax. The premise for this conspiracy theory rests on the baseless assumption that if hospital parking lots and waiting rooms are empty then the pandemic must not be real or is not as severe as reported by health authorities and the media.

We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate. Even we have reasons doubting the very efficacy of the possible coronavirus vaccines, which are expected to be available by the end of this year. None of those vaccines are claiming hundred percent efficacy. Instead, some are saying its 70 percent effective while others are within 80-95 percent efficiency rates, meaning, even after spending billions of dollars on coronavirus vaccines, the world may not totally get rid of the pandemic. Or may be at one point, many of us will believe, we have been fooled and scammed.

Sohail Choudhury is the Executive Editor of Blitz

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