The sudden explosion of COVID-19 cases caught North America by surprise. Yes, many of us were watching the developments in Europe with a wary eye, worrying about testing failures and expecting the problem to grow. But few were anticipating the zero-to-a-hundred eruption of cases that turned normal life into a ghost-city lockdown in just a handful of days.
But it’s one thing to underestimate a pandemic, and it’s another to completely deny that it exists. Weeks before the coronavirus closed most of the civilized world, right-wing pundits blanketed the airwaves, arguing that the only appropriate response was to laugh into the growing stormclouds.
One of the better-known examples is Drew Pinsky — ostensibly a medically trained doctor — who devoted hours of airtime to attacking supposed COVID-19 hysteria. At one point he famously described the risk of dying from coronavirus as less likely than being killed by an asteroid (an event responsible for virtually no recorded fatalities in all of human history).
To his (very minimal) credit, Pinsky recanted his coronavirus claims after lockdowns swept the country. He released the usual deflection-filled non-apology (it wasn’t just me, it was the best information at the time, I was actually right after I was wrong). Critics wondered how he had managed to ignore the unfolding crisis in Italy while he confidently asserted the harmlessness of coronavirus. But this is what it means to be publicly wrong. You can either admit a moment of colossal ignorance, or pad your blindspots with excuses and claim you were partly right. (And shouldn’t everyone just praise you for your timely correction?)
This was the way I expected the drama to unfold, with Dr. Drew’s mea culpa just the first in a series of excuse-laden right-wing apologies.
And then things took a darker turn.
Conspiracy theories are always alive, somewhere. In much the same way that the novel coronavirus quietly thrived in populations of bats before it made the jump to humans, a great many darkly mad theories drift in the paranoid corners of the internet. And like the coronovirus, those conspiracy theories can — with the right host — make the dangerous jump to the broader public.
Here are just some of the fringe theories that have recently been given a mainstream voice:
- Coronavirus death tolls are inflated, because the people were already dying or were victims of something else, as reported by a half-dozen Fox News hosts, including Tucker Carlson.
- Coronavirus cases are being inflated as part of a program of hospital fraud so they can steal federal aid, as suggested by Laura Ingraham on Fox News.
- Coronavirus fears are being used by globalists to implement a system of tracking and social control, as repeated by Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
- Coronavirus fears are part of a liberal program to manipulate markets and suppress dissent, as endorsed by Sean Hannity.
- Coronavirus is a laboratory-created bioweapon that was released deliberately or escaped inadvertently in China, as suggested more than once to different, yet equally receptive, hosts on Fox News.
- Coronavirus is part of Bill Gates’ plan to either profit wildly from a mandatory vaccination program or reduce the population in Africa, as reported by Fox News hosts Diamond and Silk.
We’re barely a half-step away from calling the Italian catastrophe a hoax perpetrated by crisis actors. Of course, conspiracy theories are nothing new in the American landscape. But never before have we seen them so credulously repeated by so many different media personalities looking for a story. We expect them from 4chan and Infowars, but when conspiracy theories regularly appear on the world’s most watched cable news network, it’s a problem that’s on a different order of magnitude.
The damage of COVID-19 is not unbounded. Eventually, some patchwork of immunity — whether it’s a combination of herd immunity or vaccines — will be enough to shift the danger. No longer will there be a path for a new infection to rip through a population with no immunity. Instead, we’ll face local outbreaks and flareups that burn hot and then die down.
The damage to the media universe may not end so easily. Conspiracy theories now have a well worn path to jump from attention-seeking cranks to political operatives who see the practical power of misinformation. What was once the greatest strength of democratic society — a clear-thinking, facts-centered media — is now thoroughly infected. And it’s still unclear if we can save the patient.
There is no vaccine for conspiracists. There is no way to inculcate a survival mechanism that can stop people from believing dangerous fictions. Instead, our world richly rewards those in who can command attention. We give people room to excuse their past mistakes with additional layers of false beliefs. We deconstruct any tragedy into political ammunition as it unfolds. What was ground-breaking years ago — when a businessmen who had barely dabbled in politics elevated a fringe conspiracy theory about Barack Obama’s place of birth — is now solidly mainstream.
But the longer we allow the infection of conspiracies to flourish, the weaker our society becomes. The longer we spend trying to use stories to defeat opponents instead of facts to solve problems, the farther we fall behind. The true facts disappear. And with every conspiracy that’s amplified to distract, deflect, or confuse, the odds grow that our society will crumble into the jaws of its next great challenge.