A year ago this week I had the scariest meeting of my 16 year career as a journalist. It wasn’t with paramilitaries or anyone wishing me harm, but it concerned me a lot more than coming home from a riot or facing the possibility of losing my home to a libel lawsuit.
The cloak-and-dagger encounter began with an online message. Individuals would not give their names, would not make phone calls and would not even use encrypted forms of communication. They implied having confidential financial information, but I didn’t know if it was a nervous officer or a security whistleblower.
We arranged to meet at the AC Marriott Hotel in Belfast on the banks of the Lagan but when I got there no one was waiting. Journalists routinely meet with all sorts of people discreetly, but the weird thing about it was that the longer I stood alone by the river on an autumn night, the more nervous I got.
Eventually, the person behind the messages emerged. She was a middle-aged woman and was accompanied by a man of a similar age. One was a former police officer and the other worked in a hospital.
Within moments I realized they were hardcore covid conspiracy theorists and I had wasted my time. But out of a mixture of politeness (they had driven an hour and a half to be there) and innate curiosity about their argument, I stayed and we chatted for well over an hour.
Looking back at my notes, one of the first things the woman said was that signs on the freeway were flashing: “No phones, wait for the police.”
“It’s like they’re giving us directions,” she said. I suggested it simply meant the emergency phones were broken; she wasn’t convinced.
Central to their beliefs was what they believed to be a form of modern Nazism. Like most people, they were repelled by Nazism, and that is what gave their faith such a dangerous passion.
They believed common law meant Covid restrictions were unlawful. This false claim led to her central thesis: the Nazis were not charged with breaking the law at Nuremberg because in many cases their actions had been legal under the unjust laws Hitler had enacted; they were prosecuted according to universal principles of law which no state can disregard. The couple compared deputies being prevented from attending parliament in person to Hitler’s intimidation of Reichstag deputies.
“You don’t think what’s happening now is anything like the Holocaust?” I asked. In all honesty, one replied, “The gas chambers didn’t start in 1939.” But you don’t think that will end in Holocaust-sized deaths, I said. Undeterred, they told me it was so.
They were incredulous when I asked them if they thought Covid was a major medical issue. No – it was a careful plan to destroy democracy, enslave the populace and enrich a powerful cabal.
Every time I deconstructed a claim, it was abandoned and “but what about…” shifted the focus to something else. It was a stream of consciousness, dangerous nonsense, and it was based on the sincerity of people who (unlike others) made no money from it.
What worried me the most was this: If I really believe that I was in Germany in 1938 and the Holocaust was being prepared by a handful of people, then killing those people can become a moral act. These individuals referred to their own courts, which “convicted” people and lent legality to the “enforcement” of such judgments.
Meeting the pair came to mind last week when Alex Jones, the American radio host who made his fortune on lurid lies, was ordered by a US court to pay $965 million in damages after that he claimed the Sandy Hook school massacre in December 2012 was a hoax.
Like the old media contracts, such pseudo-journalism, propagated by algorithms designed to maximize corporate profits, is proliferating. Many people see it as unfortunate – maybe even sad – when it affects someone they know. But few people realize the extent to which these ideas threaten our society.
They take a healthy instinct – distrust of those in power – and turn it into an extremist belief that most of what the government does is malicious. Confirmation bias reinforces initial belief.
A section of the population is not only being fed individual lies, but is being robbed of the ability to recognize even the most obviously absurd claims. Unchecked, this becomes a threat to democracy, as indicated by the involvement of QAnon and other conspiracies in the US Capitol storm. But in all dead seriousness, this was never a coup that would bring down a great democracy. Eventually, these ideas have the potential to become so widespread that they have this power.
conspiracies exist. As journalists, we are sometimes involved in uncovering them. But one of the many reasons to believe most conspiracy theories are nonsense is that the number of people they would need as accomplices is astronomical – Covid would have required millions of medical workers, lawmakers, scientists and others to take part in the lie to have been involved.
Long before the internet, a medieval monk and theologian established a philosophical rule that explains why most conspiracy theories are wrong. Eight centuries ago, William of Ockham laid down the principle that where there are two competing ideas for explaining a phenomenon, the simpler should be preferred to the more complex. What has become known as Occam’s Razor doesn’t say the more complex explanation is wrong, but it does require more evidence. When we see lights in the sky, we assume they are airplanes rather than aliens.
The next time you see a message on the freeway that says “No phones, wait for the police,” it’s not impossible that the world has entered a dystopian era, but it’s more likely that someone accidentally cut the phone cord severed.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/covid-conspiracy-pair-spooked-me-more-than-paramilitaries-42069505.html The Covid conspiracy couple scared me more than paramilitaries