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The real-world effect of coronavirus conspiracy theories
This is what happens when the fringe becomes mainstream.
- New research finds that YouTube is the worst disseminator of coronavirus misinformation.
- People that rely on social media for their news are more likely to believe coronavirus conspiracy beliefs.
- With only 50 percent of Americans willing to get a vaccination, conspiracy theories are fueling a public health crisis.
As Florida becomes the global epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic with over 15,000 cases reported in one day and 3.3 million cases overall, a Windermere restaurant celebrated by offering free grilled cheese sandwiches to any customer showing up without a mask.
The region, and the entire state, has become a hotbed for coronavirus conspiracy theories—a microcosm of America. The nation leads the world in coronavirus infections by a lot. We likely lead the world in conspiracy theories about the virus as well. These phenomenons are not separate.
While it's easy to roll your eyes at anti-mask crusades, new research, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, investigates the real-world effects of coronavirus conspiracy theories.
Corresponding author, Daniel Allington of King's College London, analyzed data from three surveys regarding varying aspects of COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs. His team looked at responses from 5,453 UK residents. They were especially interested in how social media disseminates health misinformation. The findings will not surprise anyone with a social media account:
"All three studies found a negative relationship between COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and COVID-19 health-protective behaviours, and a positive relationship between COVID-19 conspiracy beliefs and use of social media as a source of information about COVID-19."
Allington identifies YouTube and Facebook as the primary drivers of misinformation. The unregulated nature of social media is cause for concern. In fact, the team discovered that people that consume regulated media, such as broadcast or print, are more likely to engage in protective health measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing. The opposite is true for people that receive most of their health guidance from social media.
Coronavirus: Conspiracy Theories: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
Allington's team used data collected from partnerships with CitizenMe (Study 1) and Ipsos-MORI (Studies 2 and 3). In the first study, respondents had to identify the truth behind three conspiracy beliefs:
- The virus that causes COVID-19 was probably created in a laboratory
- The symptoms of COVID-19 seem to be connected to 5G mobile network radiation
- The COVID-19 pandemic was planned by certain pharmaceutical corporations and government agencies
Among their findings, younger people tend to buy into one or more conspiracy belief, while older respondents are more likely to engage in protective behaviors. Women listen to public health guidance more than men, though there is no gender distinction in those that believe in conspiracy theories.
Study 2 also asked about the possibility of the novel coronavirus being created in a laboratory, while Study 3 looked more deeply into the respondents' usage of social media. In each case, the results were clear: people that rely on social media for news are more likely to peddle in conspiracy theories.
YouTube appears to be the most problematic source of misinformation. Slickly produced shows, such as London Real, feature prominent anti-vaxxers like Del Bigtree. The anti-vaxx propaganda film, "Plandemic," was viewed over eight million times on YouTube before it was removed; the producer, Mikki Willis, is using this spotlight to raise funds for Part 2. These are only two examples in a deluge of anti-vaxx videos driving a dangerous narrative.
The danger is especially prevalent as a coronavirus vaccine becomes a possibility. Oxford University researchers have just discovered a strong candidate. Still, a June poll found that only 50 percent of Americans plan on getting a coronavirus vaccine. If anti-vaxx organizations continue to influence the public, less than half of this country could receive a vaccination.
In America, conspiracy beliefs are not only spread on social media. A recent study found Fox News pushing coronavirus misinformation 253 times over a five-day period. The going narrative is that vaccination is a question of "individual liberty," and if you're vaccinated you shouldn't worry about the unvaccinated. As with other misinformation, this is false, exposing the real danger of coronavirus misinformation.
People participate in a Reopen New Jersey protest on May 25, 2020 in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
In her book, "On Immunity," writer Eula Biss asks readers to imagine vaccination "as a kind of banking of immunity." When getting vaccinated, you contribute to a collective bank, ensuring those who cannot or will not get vaccinated are protected. Herd immunity only occurs when a population reaches a certain threshold; that threshold is well over 50 percent.
"The unvaccinated person is protected by the bodies around her, bodies through which disease is not circulating," writes Biss. "But a vaccinated person is surrounded by bodies that host disease is left vulnerable to vaccine failure or fading immunity. We are protected not so much by our own skin, but by what is beyond it. The boundaries between our bodies begin to dissolve here."
The prevalence of immunosuppressed individuals unable to get vaccinated is left out of this conversation. This is a growing concern in countries like America, where obesity has led to increasing numbers of immunosuppressed citizens.
While the myth that children are protected against the ravages of the coronavirus persists, the long-term complications of this multi-system disease are still becoming known, making anti-vaxx parents accountable for potential harm that may come.
Every citizen should be wary of a rushed vaccine. Researchers are attempting to create a vaccine faster than ever. There are inherent dangers in such a pursuit. But costs associated with rejecting any vaccine on the grounds of perceived "sovereignty" is even more dangerous. The price we'll pay for this misinformation is higher than any society can bear.
- 7 reasons to be very wary of "The Plandemic" - Big Think ›
- Conspiracy theories and cult dynamics - Big Think ›
- How to shut down coronavirus conspiracy theories - Big Think ›
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
So far, 30 student teams have entered the Indy Autonomous Challenge, scheduled for October 2021.
- The Indy Autonomous Challenge will task student teams with developing self-driving software for race cars.
- The competition requires cars to complete 20 laps within 25 minutes, meaning cars would need to average about 110 mph.
- The organizers say they hope to advance the field of driverless cars and "inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>Completing the race in 25 minutes means the cars will need to average about 110 miles per hour. So, while the race may end up being a bit slower than a typical Indy 500 competition, in which winners average speeds of over 160 mph, it's still set to be the fastest autonomous race featuring full-size cars.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is no human redundancy there," Matt Peak, managing director for Energy Systems Network, a nonprofit that develops technology for the automation and energy sectors, told the <a href="https://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2020/06/01/Indy-Autonomous-Challenge-Indy-500-Indianapolis-Motor-Speedway-Ansys-Aptiv-self-driving-cars/stories/202005280137" target="_blank">Pittsburgh Post-Gazette</a>. "Either your car makes this happen or smash into the wall you go."</p>
Illustration of the Indy Autonomous Challenge
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>The Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://www.indyautonomouschallenge.com/rules" target="_blank">describes</a> itself as a "past-the-post" competition, which "refers to a binary, objective, measurable performance rather than a subjective evaluation, judgement, or recognition."</p><p>This competition design was inspired by the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, which tasked teams with developing driverless cars and sending them along a 150-mile route in Southern California for a chance to win $1 million. But that prize went unclaimed, because within a few hours after starting, all the vehicles had suffered some kind of critical failure.</p>
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Indy Autonomous Challenge<p>One factor that could prevent a similar outcome in the upcoming race is the ability to test-run cars on a virtual racetrack. The simulation software company Ansys Inc. has already developed a model of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on which teams will test their algorithms as part of a series of qualifying rounds.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We can create, with physics, multiple real-life scenarios that are reflective of the real world," Ansys President Ajei Gopal told <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/autonomous-vehicles-to-race-at-indianapolis-motor-speedway-11595237401?mod=e2tw" target="_blank">The Wall Street Journal</a>. "We can use that to train the AI, so it starts to come up to speed."</p><p>Still, the race could reveal that self-driving cars aren't quite ready to race at speeds of over 110 mph. After all, regular self-driving cars already face enough logistical and technical roadblocks, including <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53349313#:~:text=Tesla%20will%20be%20able%20to,no%20driver%20input%2C%20he%20said." target="_blank">crumbling infrastructure, communication issues</a> and the <a href="https://bigthink.com/paul-ratner/would-you-ride-in-a-car-thats-programmed-to-kill-you" target="_self">fateful moral decisions driverless cars will have to make in split seconds</a>.</p>But the Indy Autonomous Challenge <a href="https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5da73021d0636f4ec706fa0a/t/5dc0680c41954d4ef41ec2b2/1572890638793/Indy+Autonomous+Challenge+Ruleset+-+v5NOV2019+%282%29.pdf" target="_blank">says</a> its main goal is to advance the industry, by challenging "students around the world to imagine, invent, and prove a new generation of automated vehicle (AV) software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent."
A new Harvard study finds that the language you use affects patient outcome.
- A study at Harvard's McLean Hospital claims that using the language of chemical imbalances worsens patient outcomes.
- Though psychiatry has largely abandoned DSM categories, professor Joseph E Davis writes that the field continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system."
- Chemical explanations of mental health appear to benefit pharmaceutical companies far more than patients.
Challenging the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Mental Disorders: Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="41699c8c2cb2aee9271a36646e0bee7d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-8BDC7i8Yyw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>This is a far cry from Howard Rusk's 1947 NY Times editorial calling for mental healt</p><p>h disorders to be treated similarly to physical disease (such as diabetes and cancer). This mindset—not attributable to Rusk alone; he was merely relaying the psychiatric currency of the time—has dominated the field for decades: mental anguish is a genetic and/or chemical-deficiency disorder that must be treated pharmacologically.</p><p>Even as psychiatry untethered from DSM categories, the field still used chemistry to validate its existence. Psychotherapy, arguably the most efficient means for managing much of our anxiety and depression, is time- and labor-intensive. Counseling requires an empathetic and wizened ear to guide the patient to do the work. Ingesting a pill to do that work for you is more seductive, and easier. As Davis writes, even though the industry abandoned the DSM, it continues to strive for a "brain-based diagnostic system." </p><p>That language has infiltrated public consciousness. The team at McLean surveyed 279 patients seeking acute treatment for depression. As they note, the causes of psychological distress have constantly shifted over the millennia: humoral imbalance in the ancient world; spiritual possession in medieval times; early childhood experiences around the time of Freud; maladaptive thought patterns dominant in the latter half of last century. While the team found that psychosocial explanations remain popular, biogenetic explanations (such as the chemical imbalance theory) are becoming more prominent. </p><p>Interestingly, the 80 people Davis interviewed for his book predominantly relied on biogenetic explanations. Instead of doctors diagnosing patients, as you might expect, they increasingly serve to confirm what patients come in suspecting. Patients arrive at medical offices confident in their self-diagnoses. They believe a pill is the best course of treatment, largely because they saw an advertisement or listened to a friend. Doctors too often oblige without further curiosity as to the reasons for their distress. </p>
Image: Illustration Forest / Shutterstock<p>While medicalizing mental health softens the stigma of depression—if a disorder is inheritable, it was never really your fault—it also disempowers the patient. The team at McLean writes,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"More recent studies indicate that participants who are told that their depression is caused by a chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality expect to have depression for a longer period, report more depressive symptoms, and feel they have less control over their negative emotions."</p><p>Davis points out the language used by direct-to-consumer advertising prevalent in America. Doctors, media, and advertising agencies converge around common messages, such as everyday blues is a "real medical condition," everyone is susceptible to clinical depression, and drugs correct underlying somatic conditions that you never consciously control. He continues,</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Your inner life and evaluative stance are of marginal, if any, relevance; counseling or psychotherapy aimed at self-insight would serve little purpose." </p><p>The McLean team discovered a similar phenomenon: patients expect little from psychotherapy and a lot from pills. When depression is treated as the result of an internal and immutable essence instead of environmental conditions, behavioral changes are not expected to make much difference. Chemistry rules the popular imagination.</p>