John Oliver on coronavirus conspiracy theories: ‘People are going to get burned’


After a three-week hiatus, John Oliver returned to Last Week Tonight to discuss the lure and prevalence of conspiracy theories, particularly at such a high-risk, high-information time as the coronavirus pandemic, which has created a “perfect storm for conspiracy theorists”, he said.

Hoaxes and conspiracy theories have proliferated since the pandemic began in March, Oliver recapped, with some online groups and websites claiming the virus doesn’t exist, or that it was created by pharmaceutical companies to create business for vaccines, or that 5G networks somehow cause illness. The pseudo-documentary Plandemic was viewed more than 8 million times in one week – a “shockingly high number”, Oliver said, not only for its numerous falsehoods but in that it racked up more views than Oliver’s preferred TikTok of a cat matching a piano’s pitch.

Given the transmissibility of Covid-19, conspiracy theories, even fringe ones, are especially dangerous now, Oliver explained, even if only a fraction of Americans believe in them and act accordingly, such as refusing to wear a mask or physically distance. And they are “a lot more popular than you might think”, said Oliver.

Neither is he immune to their appeal – “embarrassingly, there’s a part of me that thinks the royal family had Princess Diana killed,” Oliver said. “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.” The longing for meaning behind senselessness is, experts say, a strong draw of conspiracy theories, which “explain a chaotic, uncertain world”, said Oliver, and appeal to our proportionality bias, or the tendency to assume big events must have big causes.

Conspiracy theories also aren’t unique to the digital age, particularly when it comes to global health – a bogus theory in the 1400s blamed the bubonic plague on Jews, some attributed the Russian flu of 1889 to the new technology of electric lightbulbs, and during the 1918 flu pandemic, rumors spread that the German company Bayer had tainted its aspirin.

“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,” said Oliver.

“These theories can be innately appealing and, thanks to the internet, can spread with ease,” he added. “And all of this would be dangerous enough before you take into account that one of the most prominent spreaders of conspiracy theories on earth is the current president of the United States.”

Before he was elected, Trump propagated the Obama birther hoax, and has since trafficked in bogus conspiracy theories such as the line that millions of fake votes were cast for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, to the point…

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