Covid-19 conspiracy theories are being fed by institutions meant to inform the public

Conspiracy theories about the origins of coronavirus have swirled around discussion of the pandemic since it began. These theories tend to proliferate during times of crisis, as people search for elusive explanations at a time of tremendous uncertainty. But there’s also something else that’s keeping them alive: Institutions in American life entrusted to inform the public have been amplifying them.

The latest example of this phenomenon was a controversial decision by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns one of the US’ largest local television networks. The company planned to air a new interview with discredited researcher and conspiracy theorist Judy Mikovits in which she suggests — despite all evidence and research stating otherwise — that one the Trump administration’s top scientists, Dr. Anthony Fauci, may have created the coronavirus.

Sinclair was fiercely criticized for its decision to give Mikovits a platform on an episode of America This Week initially set to air on its local stations this weekend, and after facing pushback from progressive watchdogs like Media Matters and influential journalists, the company announced that it would delay broadcasting the episode so it can bring “together other viewpoints and provide additional context.”

As things stand, Sinclair may still air a newly edited version of episode, giving Mikovits a broadcast platform. (Sinclair did not respond to a request for comment.) Even if the company ultimately decides to kill the episode, serious damage has already been done. The episode was placed on the show’s website, and the controversy alone has already brought a new wave of attention to Mikovits’s bizarre and widely debunked conspiracy theories about the virus, giving Mikovits’s fear-mongering about Covid-19 a broader audience.

Ahead of the interview, Mikovits had struggled to find a platform for her fringe views; a viral video featuring an interview with her — an extended trailer for a documentary called Plandemic — was banned by YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo in May. In the clip she made false claims that coronavirus is “activated” by protective masks; that a coronavirus vaccine will “kill millions”; and that Fauci was involved in a plot to by elites to use the pandemic to seize political power and profit off vaccines.

In her new interview with America this Week, Mikovits alleges that Fauci has, for the past decade, “manufactured” and shipped coronaviruses to Wuhan, China. Her attorney Larry Klayman, a conservative lawyer with his own history of peddling bizarre conspiracy theories, also appeared on the show and claimed the “origins” of coronavirus were in the US. The host of the show, Eric Bolling, did not challenge or refute the evidence-free claims, despite scientists’ research suggesting Covid-19 jumped from an animal to humans. Throughout the segment an on-screen graphic reads, “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?”

After his interview with Mikovits and Klayman, Bolling interviewed Fox News medical contributor Nicole Saphier, a radiologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, in what appeared to be an attempt to balance the conspiracy theories of his earlier guests. Saphier said she did not believe that Fauci engineered the coronavirus, but she also said that there were “several theories” about its origins and endorsed the theory of Covid-19 possibly being “man-made within a laboratory” (a theory for which there is no evidence to support).

Sinclair is not the first media outlet to play a role in amplifying conspiracy theories. For example, in April, former Trump adviser Roger Stone shared the theory that philanthropist Bill Gates may have created coronavirus and planned to use a vaccine to surveil the public with injected microchips on a New York radio show — and the New York Post ran a story on it without questioning or refuting it. Fox News has similarly given air time to hosts peddling conspiracy theories, like Tucker Carlson’s scientifically unsubstantiated claim that the coronavirus “is not a naturally occurring virus, that it was somehow created by the Chinese government.”

The most influential political office in the land — the presidency — has lent credence to theories that the virus is part of a nefarious plan as well. President Donald Trump has said that he also believes that a Chinese lab may have accidentally or deliberately released the virus, despite the fact his own intelligence agencies said they had determined it was not manmade.

But Sinclair’s plan to broadcast conspiracy theories has experts uniquely worried. The broadcaster has vast national reach with its channels, and some may not realize their local news — typically a domain for what is perceived as apolitical information — is coming from pro-Trump company with a questionable commitment to truth-telling and an agenda to spread right-wing ideas.

“People tend to trust their local news stations, more than many other types of media,” Liz Suhay, a scholar of political psychology at American University, told me. “Misinformation spread via these outlets will persuade millions.”

Conspiracy theories reflect societal anxieties. Media outlets can amplify them.

Experts say that historically speaking, the pubic is more receptive to conspiracy theories during catastrophes.

“Conspiracy theories flourish in times of crisis, which is obviously the case here,” Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent and an expert in conspiratorial thinking, told Vox’s Jane Coaston in April. “They tend to surround big events that require big explanations [because] small explanations are unsatisfying.”

But the specific content of conspiracy theories is also important — and can provide clues about the societies in which the theories take hold. As Coaston has explained, pandemics fuel conspiracy theories that grapple not only with disease itself, but also with social and political structures:

Historically, with every plague and pandemic, there have been conspiracy theories to explain their origin and how to potentially stop their progression. Often, those conspiracy theories play on existing concerns and work within cultural contexts. For example, during the Black Death, a 14th-century outbreak of bubonic plague that killed at least 35 percent of Europe’s population, conspiracy theories targeted Jewish people — already the subject of ire and deep concern — as the source of the plague, leading to the torture and murder of thousands of Jews in response. (As anti-Semitism is itself a conspiracy theory, it’s not surprising to see anti-Semitic conspiracy theories arise during the coronavirus pandemic as well.)

More recent pandemics have seen the rise of their own conspiracy theories, ones that formed in response to underlying concerns as much as they did to a virus or disease. “AIDS denialists,” for example — people who believe that HIV does not cause AIDS — were responding not just to AIDS, but to the context of AIDS in the United States of the 1980s, a disease that seemed to kill the most vulnerable and most despised in society with little attention or care from mainstream authority figures. That led some people, already experienced in distrusting institutions that had only served to disadvantage and oppress them, to distrust them even more in the face of a crisis.

We’re seeing some analogous dynamics play out today: Conspiracy theories discussed during the era of coronavirus also reflect certain strands of popular thought about power in America and the world today. At a time of staggering socioeconomic inequality in the US, and at a specific moment when disease is revealing the life-or-death stakes of that inequality, the emergence of conspiracy theories that suggest that the virus is a plan by elites to accumulate profit and power should not be surprising.

A Pew Research Center survey from June found that about a quarter of Americans see at least some truth in the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus outbreak was intentionally planned by powerful people. (Five percent say it’s “definitely true” and 20 percent say it’s “probably true,” with a 1.6 percentage point margin of error.)

Matt Motta, a professor of political science at Oklahoma State University who studies the intersection of politics and science, said in an email that Sinclair’s decision to air an interview could increase the number of true believers in the most extreme theories.

“Even though many Americans accept misinformation about the origins of Covid-19 (e.g., that it was created in a lab), belief in the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy has largely been relegated to only the most ardent conspiracy theorists. That’s in part due to the relatively swift action social media companies took to remove the video from their platforms,” he wrote. “Sinclair’s decision to air this interview without challenging its claims risks pushing some of these extreme views into the mainstream.”

Experts have emphasized that local news is a particularly potent way to spread conspiracy theories because of the unique role local broadcasts play in distributing news — meaning even a new version of Sinclair’s Mikovits interview providing “additional context” may not be enough to limit the proliferation of Mikovits’s conspiracy theory.

“The fact that the story is ostensibly balanced is nonsense, as the view being presented [by Mikovits] has no support among experts, and ‘balanced’ formats can be misleading,” Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth who researches misperceptions about politics and health care, told me.

In fact, placing Mikovits among credible experts may actually give her conspiracy greater credence to viewers, effectively giving her ideas the same legitimacy as whatever scientifically based statements those experts make.

Pew polling conducted in June found most Americans don’t have much trust in national news outlets’ ability to deliver facts about the coronavirus, a result mirrored in a late June New York Times/Siena College poll. Americans were found to have greater trust for their local news outlets, however, with 50 percent saying their local news presents factual coverage of Covid-19 at least most of the time — 6 percentage points more than national outlets (again, with a 1.6 percentage point margin of error).

Overall, studies show that the public generally has substantially more trust in local television news and newspapers than their national counterparts.

In other words, Sinclair broadcasting conspiracy theories could influence people’s attitudes and beliefs more deeply than CNN or Fox News.

Conspiracy theories might sound absurd, but they’re no laughing matter

The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories about the inception and spread of Covid-19 could seriously complicate the country’s ability to manage the pandemic by corroding the public’s inclination to comply with expert guidance.

Motta pointed to a study he co-authored that found that people who have been more exposed misinformation about the origins of coronavirus in the media — through right-leaning news, in particular — are more likely to accept those claims as true, and are subsequently less likely to accept warnings about the severity of the pandemic from scientific experts. “The risks are very real,” he warned.

And Suhay noted that the pandemic’s end could be delayed by conspiracy theories, telling me, “I think the most concerning harm in this instance is that many of the Covid conspiracy theories circulating are directly and indirectly ‘anti-vax’ — which means they are likely to drive down the number of people willing to be vaccinated against the disease when a vaccine eventually becomes available.”

If major media outlets continue to give oxygen to ungrounded theories about the virus and trust in experts diminishes, delayed vaccination times and poor compliance with social distancing protocols could intensify the crisis. Conspiracy theories about the world will always exist, but it’s up to institutions tasked with telling the truth to avoid giving a platform to claims that have no demonstrable basis in reality, and to rigorously refute them through careful and factual explanation.