Why have so many millions of people allowed themselves to be taken in by cranks peddling conspiracy theories during the pandemic? New African editor Anver Versi examines the muddled thinking that lies behind the problem.
A friend of mine in Kenya has worked himself into a terrible dilemma. He does not know whether to not to take the Covid vaccinations he has been offered. He is an avid WhatsApp consumer; he acknowledges that it is his main source of information and opinion – and a whole spectrum of people have been warning him that all forms of calamity, including introducing the Devil himself into his system, will follow as surely as night follows day if he takes the vaccines.
He is not alone in this. Millions of people around the world share similar beliefs. They have all had their brains scrambled by various charlatans and cranks who use social media to put out dangerous and often life-threatening messages to a gullible populace. In the UK, a man who refused to be vaccinated came down with the illness and barely escaped with his life. He is now singing a very different tune.
People with cranky ideas like the US-based QAnon, who believe that aliens have taken over the American administration and that the White House is the headquarters of a global ring of paedophiles, have been around for centuries. But never before have so many of them been provided with such a huge global platform as today via social media.
The pandemic has been a boon for all sorts of conspiracy theorists, quacks, con artists and for those who seem to delight in making fools of others.
They have all realised that the majority of people don’t really know very much about most things; they accept whatever they are told is correct if it seems to come from a ‘reliable source’, whatever that might mean.
When people are frightened, as with the virus, they look for information from any source. In the past, this would usually be the government, or doctors; today, they are bombarded with conflicting information from a variety of sources.
They do not know what to believe so they put their trust in their social media groups – “since so-and-so forwarded this message, and since the person is someone I trust, the message must be correct”, goes the reasoning. They do not stop to ask if so-and-so has any knowledge at all of what he or she is talking about.
Cause and effect
Coming back to my friend. Keeping in mind the adage that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, I ask him if he knows the difference between a virus and bacteria; only that both are “germs”, he says; does he understand the difference between a GP and an epidemiologist? “Both are doctors?” he offers, unaware that the latter is highly specialised in the study and control of disease outbreaks. Does he know the various processes that go into the making of a vaccine? No, he has no idea but he knows it is made in a laboratory.
So on what basis has he decided that being vaccinated could be dangerous for him? “Everybody says so! It’s all over social media. My friend from Canada forwarded the latest and he should know as they are advanced in Canada. He is also very religious.”
He didn’t seem to be aware of the series of non-sequiturs he was rolling out and I just had to give up and pray for his well-being or that somehow common sense would prevail and he would get himself vaccinated in time.
If the situation was not so serious (I know three people personally who lost their lives because they refused the vaccines), it would be laughable.
His problem, a very common one I discovered, is that he cannot tell cause and effect. Both cause and effect have become totally muddled up in his mind and he has become open prey to all kinds of absurd notions.
But the ability to distinguish cause and effect is not as simple as it may sound. Most of education is based on finding and making this distinction – in science, in economics, in business, in politics and in human relationships. Traditions, customs, opinions, beliefs and faith all have their place but if they get in the way of honing down on cause and effect, they lead to muddled thinking. Muddled thinking does not deliver the outcomes we seek when we set out on a course of action.
The pandemic has exposed the extent of muddled thinking in our societies. As we anticipate the recovery, we should make a conscious effort to ensure that we can work out cause and effect and not simply accept any idea blowing in the wind or on social media.