Coronavirus: Conspiracy Theories: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

moving on our main story tonight concerns conspiracy theories voted definitely true by uncle quarterly now you’re probably familiar with at least some conspiracy theories like the claim that the moon landing was faked or the argument that the earth is flat and that scientists are covering it up and that is a theory that led to this absolutely stunning youtube video clearly magnificent and putting aside the factual inaccuracies slant rhymes shoehorned lyrics and the bad adele or solid bjork impression my favorite part of that is the comment holy crap this is amazing i’m going to share this around the world which is quite simply perfect but as you probably guessed the reason that we need to talk about this is that the coronavirus has created a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists because their theories are now everywhere over the last few weeks some people have been saying online that the virus is harmless or even that it doesn’t exist numerous sites and groups online have been falsely claiming that this virus is a result of some sort of biological warfare some sort of bioweapon or even created by the pharmaceutical industry to try to sell more vaccines one particularly persistent falsehood 5g mobile networks transmit covid 19 you know when they turn this on it’s going to kill everyone a woman in britain called workers killers for laying 5g fiber optic cables when they turn that switch on bye-bye mama okay there is so much wrong there but most of all the only time an english person should be saying bye bye mama is when they’re physically leaving the womb bye bye mama thank you for an excellent delivery and after that is yes mom no mom and thank you kindly for wiping off my shameful buttocks much obliged and those theories are just the tip of the iceberg here you might have seen this video of two doctors making a now debunked claim that covert death rates were exaggerated because it was all over facebook a couple of months ago or maybe you came across pandemic a pseudo documentary filled with a hodgepodge of conspiracy theories in just one week it was viewed over 8 million times which is a shockingly high number because that means it’s been seen more times than this tick tock of a cat matching a piano’s pitch good cat you deserve more views and the problem is some online theories have already prompted some worrying real world actions take the hashtag film your hospital which spread after some claims that the severity of the pandemic was being exaggerated and urged people to expose the truth that unfortunately led to videos like this one where a man angrily demands hospital staff show him their coronavirus patients and then shouts at them as he drives away maybe you can call the governor and tell him about the hoax yeah it’s a hoax where’s all the patients where’s the lines of sick people yeah she’s right and can you imagine how confused that man is whenever he tries to check into a hotel no vacancy where are all the guests what are the depressed salesmen attempting autoerotic asphyxiation in your lobby maybe you should call the governor of this best western and tell him your sign is a hoax and the harms of conspiracy theories during a pandemic go far beyond confused hospital workers as one study pointed out given the transmissibility of covid19 these beliefs are dangerous even if only a fraction of americans succumbing to them ignore best practices such as social distancing so tonight let’s talk about conspiracy theories particularly why they’re so appealing how to spot them and what you might be able to do about it and let’s start with the fact that these theories are a lot more popular than you might think polls over the years have shown that over half of americans consistently endorse at least one sort of conspiratorial narrative and look i’m not immune here embarrassingly there’s a part of me that thinks the royal family had princess diana killed i know that they didn’t because there’s absolutely no evidence that they did but the idea still lingers because it felt too big an event to be accidental there had to be some intent there and experts will say that that is actually a huge draw of conspiracy theories they help explain a chaotic uncertain world and appeal to the human impulse to what’s called proportionality bias which is the tendency to assume that big events must have big causes take the jfk assassination that event shook the world and the very idea that a lone gunman could cause such chaos was inherently

unsatisfying so people perhaps understandably reached for a much bigger answer although it is revealing that conversely less impactful events have attracted significantly less speculation the attempted assassination of ronald reagan was a similar event in all regards except that the president survived it was a smaller event in terms of its outcome and therefore we are satisfied with smaller explanations and so there have been almost no conspiracy theories about the attempted assassination of ronald reagan either at the time or subsequently exactly and that kind of makes sense doesn’t it one man suddenly changing the world is inconceivable one man failing miserably isn’t remotely surprising something which is also incidentally the tagline for feminism and the appeal of conspiracy theories is such that people can even embrace ones that contradict one another one study found that more participants believe that princess diana faked her own death the more they believed that she was murdered which sounds crazy although if there is one expert on something being demonstrably dead yet technically alive at the same time it was probably the woman stuck in a loveless marriage with prince charles for 15 years the point is these theories have always been appealing and have actually been particularly seductive during global health crises in the 14th century conspiracy theorists claim that jewish people were responsible for the bubonic plague in 1890 and newspaper claims the electric light was responsible for a global influenza outbreak and in 1918 rumors spread that german pharmaceutical company bayer had tainted its u.s sold aspirin tablets with the so-called spanish flu the only difference now is that our current pandemic is coming in the age of the internet when it’s not only easier for people to do bad research and spread their results but it’s also possible for them to make material look startlingly authoritative in fact take pandemic at first view it looks like a high budget true crime documentary with fancy graphics and drone footage and it deploys those techniques to tell the story of judy mykovitz a former scientist at the national cancer institute who’s depicted as a whistleblower on the scientific establishment here is how the film presents a key moment in michael vicks’s narrative where she claims her enemies had her arrested without cause and so what did they charge you with nothing but you’re in jail i was held in jail with no charges i was called a fugitive from justice no warrant literally drug me out of the house our neighbors are looking at what’s going on here you know they search my house without a warrant now that looks pretty compelling there the police surrounding her house using violent force and eventually throwing her in jail without cause but a few things you should know first she was absolutely criminally charged as stated in a lawsuit that she herself later filed over the arrest mykovitz was arrested on criminal charges and when a reporter pointed this out to her she said she meant the charges were later dropped adding i’ve been confused for a decade and that i’ll try to learn to say it differently second while that arrest footage looks dramatic it is not actually from her arrest at all it’s from an unrelated swat raid and is literally the first result you get when you search house raid on a stock footage website which is just ridiculous because if they simply worked a little harder and searched house raid on other stock footage sites they could have found this video of a masked robber spanking himself then flipping the bird and dancing around like a maniac and that’s not just objectively better than the clip they chose it’s also exactly as relevant and the issue isn’t just that the film misrepresents mike ovitz’s backstory it’s that in doing so they lend her an error of credibility when they allow her to make unchallenged batshit medical claims like these wearing the mask literally activates your own virus you’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions and if it happens to be sars cove too then you’ve got a big problem why would you close the beach you’ve got sequences in the soil in the sand you’ve got healing microbes in the ocean in the salt water that’s insanity yes it is everything that you just said is insane the idea that wearing a mask activates your own virus is absurd in debunking it politifact said there is no evidence to support this and then through in we’re not sure what a coronavirus expression even is as for the idea that there are healing microbes at the beach look i don’t want to be the depressing guy that tells you going to the beach won’t cure coronavirus but i will say the beach is exactly three things none of which are medicine it’s sand that goes down your ass crack salt water that gets up your nose and sun that burns your skin the beach doesn’t cure anything except you being comfortable and incidentally when we reached out to the director of pandemic to cite our many issues with the film he wrote back not only saying that he stands behind it but asking in a country that marches to the chant of believe all women why is it that people are so quick to

disbelieve doctor mykovitz to which the answer is obviously a because she’s telling people good coronavis prevention involves not wearing a mask and going boogie boarding b the phrase is believe women not believe all women and see that’s not what that phrase is about because the point of that movement is not well i guess we all have to take rachel dolezal at a word now and look i am well aware that for some even these criticisms of pandemic will somehow be further proof that what it’s saying is true that is actually a common trait of conspiracy theories that they’re inherently self-sealing with any criticism just becoming evidence that the whole thing is bigger than anyone could have imagined although i will simply say this if i am in on this conspiracy that means my puppet master is a t and what makes you think that they can pull off a global conspiracy when they can barely pull off a complete phone call how would they even be sending me orders sprint the point is these theories can be innately appealing and thanks to the internet can spread with ease and all of this would be dangerous enough before you take into account that one of the most prominent spreaders of conspiracies on earth is the current president of the united states because he’s been spreading them around for years often with the excuse that people are saying them and he’s just asking questions something he’s done on claims like obama was born in kenya antonin scalia was murdered and that millions of fake votes were cast for hillary clinton conspiracies are sort of like ugly buildings and deeply tragic adult children and that donald trump loves to unleash them into the world and then refuse to take responsibility for them ever again and he’s been doing this throughout the pandemic including just this week when he retweeted a theory that the cdc and the media are lying about the virus to hurt his re-election chances trump has passed on so many conspiracies that news outlets have repeatedly called him the conspiracy theorist in chief although i would argue he’s not invested in any of these things that he’s spreading he’s only interested in amplifying whatever he thinks he might personally benefit from and i cannot believe i’m saying this but the person with the clearest sense of just how deeply cynical trump’s use of conspiracy theories is is this guy when you get to trump and his conspiracy theories he does it in a really clever way trump never says that he believes these conspiracy theories that he counts he simply passed the amount and it’s it it’s his way of jamming him up it’s his way of uh teasing him it’s his way of getting these conspiracy theories out there so trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire here and he’s having fun watching the flames yeah rush limbaugh gets it and that’s a sentence i never thought i’d say unless i was talking about toilet transmitted chlamydia but the thing is right now in particular there is real harm in throwing gasoline on the fire because people are going to get burned making those flames not quite as fun to watch because make no mistake here people who have been convinced that kovid was overblown have sometimes paid a steep price around this time last month jupiter rideshare driver brian hitchens was a self-proclaimed coveted 19 skeptic i thought it was maybe the government was trying something that and it was kind of like a kind of like they threw it out there to kind of distract us fast forward to this week and hitchens has a whole new outlook from his hospital bed this is a real virus that you’ve gotta take serious my wife’s on the ventilator she’s been like that for three weeks and it’s tough it’s it it’s sad yeah it is sad and unfortunately i don’t think he’s going to be the last person in this country to learn that a lot of what’s on the internet is the hard way so what can we do here well social media companies are finally doing more to label conspiracy theories or limit their spread but the truth is they can only do so much they don’t always have the expertise to litigate what isn’t isn’t true and the sheer volume of material flying around makes it almost impossible for them to catch everything and that’s actually been a challenge for us in this story too we are clearly only scratching the surface of what is out there and i’m sure if you look down at the comments section when this is on youtube you will find people saying how about the fact that virus was created as a bio weapon or what about bill gates’s plan to microchip me and it would take days to go through why each one of those is and it still won’t address the ones that come up in the weeks and the months ahead the fact is it’s going to be incumbent upon us as individuals to try and spot these theories and treat them with a skeptical eye before we believe them or indeed spread them around and there are actually three basic questions that you can ask yourself that could help in that regard first is there a rational non-conspiracy explanation because remember the theory 5g towers are spreading coronavirus or as that one woman so memorably

phrased it when they turned that switch on bye bye mama exactly it made the rounds helped by images like these showing maps of coronavirus cases alongside maps of the 5g rollout and initially the similarity there does seem striking until you realize those maps also look like the ones of population density which makes a lot more sense because that’s correlation not causation wi-fi rollouts and virus cases will both be where there are a lot of people in fact lots of maps look like those maps this one of domino’s pizza locations looks like a map of coronavirus outbreaks and i’m pretty sure domino’s pizza isn’t causing it yes their wisconsin 6gs will give you a dry cough fever diarrhea and covito but not in the exact same way as the coronavirus and knowing the difference is called science now the second question you could ask is has this been held up to scrutiny by experts and if so what did those experts say because it’s not uncommon for theories to cite a single source a doctor or scientist like severely midwest and diane keaton here making an outlandish claim but it’s worth checking if most credible doctors or scientists agree with them and if you’re thinking well what if all of them are in on the cover-up too that actually brings us to our final question here how plausible is this conspiracy as a practical matter because not every conspiracy theory is fictional obviously some have absolutely turned out to be true but the very fact that we know about the real ones actually teaches us something important one study looked at real government secrets like edward snowden’s revelations about government surveillance and found the reason they unraveled was because of the sheer number of people who had to keep them secret they actually created an equation to predict how quickly other science-based conspiracy theories would have unraveled had they been true finding that faking the moon landing for instance would have required an estimated 411 000 people to keep quiet and would have broken down in just over three and a half years which does make sense doesn’t it because think for a second just how many people would have to be sworn to secrecy to keep a coronavirus hoax under wraps i don’t know if you’ve ever tried to organize say a midsize surprise party for your cousin but it’s borderline impossible to keep it quiet because someone is telling roxanne no matter how many emails you’ve sent saying no one tell roxanne roxanne is finding out and i know you may not find conspiracy theories plausible but you also may know people who do and while you can’t reach everyone you can reach some and and now more than ever it might be important for you to try which clearly is not easy it is completely natural to simply want to scream at them why do you believe this nonsense you titanic idiot and i would say just show them this piece but obviously i’m not the best messenger within the first 20 seconds of this story i called your uncle a and tend not to like that now what experts say is that the most effective way to approach someone is not by shaming them for believing something or overwhelming them with counter evidence but to try and be empathetic meet them where they are and nudge them to think a bit more critically so to that end we’ve asked some people that they might be more willing to listen to to help you start a conversation for instance let’s say your confused grandparents are passing around dangerous misinformation about not wearing a mask they may not listen to me but they might listen to the man that they’ve been letting into their home every weeknight to calmly tell them what is and isn’t correct hi everyone the answer is alex trebek the correct question of course who is that handsome man i’m looking at right now yeah we got alex trebek to make a 90-second video gently urging anyone who watches it to be careful with what they encounter and share online so you can show your grandparents that and then talk to them about it but let’s say you’ve got a cousin who’s not a jeopardy fan maybe they like wrestling or fast and furious movies well the good news is john cena has got something to say to them too there’s a lot of official looking stuff on the internet not all of it’s true and there’s some stuff that seems false but isn’t like this one john oliver and i are the exact same age yep born on the same year on the exact same day it seems impossible that two human bodies can age so differently but it’s true i checked and it’s important you do that so before you go believe any theory about the pandemic or share any information about the pandemic it’s good to know where that information’s coming from yeah both of those things he said are true you should check information you see online and we are the exact same age it’s a thing that i think about every birthday and it’s not just alex trebek and john cena we have an assortment of truly beloved figures from

paul rudd to catherine o’hara to billy porter each of whom made messages to urge people to think more critically here is just a taste what’s going on my people it’s me billy porter hello there i’m catherine o’hara i’m paul rudd alex trebek john cena here wwe superstar actor internet meme dessert lover and number three on your partner’s free pass list i’m literally a superhero the smallest one but it still counts i know that we are living in scary times given the current state of things you’re searching for answers about the global health crisis i think that’s awesome that curiosity that’s good i’m curious too if nobody ever asked questions jeopardy would be a very very weird show wouldn’t it but you have to be careful because there’s a lot of convincing looking on the internet and most of it ain’t true you know i once thought i was dead because hashtag r.i.p paul rudd was trending so before you go off and share something with your friends and family it’s good to know where that information is coming from is it a trusted news source if you’re not sure look to see if other trusted news sources and experts are saying the same thing a good way to know if an idea or story that you’ve read about holds water is that a majority of trusted sources agree on it and finally think critically you’re smart you’re smart you’re a smart cookie i know i know you are we have the look of a scholar and the taste of the macaron y’all got brains use them use it like it’s the first roll of toilet paper in a brand new pack unsparingly and with gusta you have common sense trust that part of your brain to guide you as you educate yourself during this difficult time and trust that i’m doing what i can to hop to number one on your partner’s free pass list and number three on yours hey be safe out there that’s all good advice and to increase the chance the conspiracy theorists stumble on them we’ve put their full videos online at and if you’re looking to start a conversation with someone picking one of these videos is honestly a pretty good entry point that is our show thank you so much for watching we’ll see you next week good night you