You could fill a book with dumb things people believe about COVID-19. Unethical actors taking advantage of public fears about a deadly disease is as predictable as it is depressing, and, as infections rates climb from new variants, misinformation and lies are spreading almost as quickly as the virus itself.
Just look at this tweet: It reads “BREAKING: CDC has stated that Americans who have received mRNA COVID vaccines are now at a higher risk of infection from new variants of the virus than those who are unvaccinated.” Posted on Sept. 4 by something called “Leading Report,” the tweet has been viewed over 7.5 million times on Twitter, and I’m writing this just two days later.
Is the CDC lying about Covid? (No.)
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The tweet is 73% true, so it’s easy to see why people were fooled, but the last 27% changes its entire meaning, and is the insidious inflection point of misinformation. The CDC did warn that the BA.2.86 variant may be more likely to infect vaccinated people and people who have had COVID—but that’s compared to older variants. Not compared to non-vaccinated people as the tweet says.
The CDC’s Aug. 23 risk assessment doesn’t mention the unvaccinated at all. Instead, the CDC reported that current tests and medication appear effective on the new variant, and that the vaccine coming in mid-September “will be effective at reducing severe disease and hospitalization.”
Why people believe COVID conspiracy theories
Most people who bother to look into the report behind this tweet and combine it with their previous knowledge of best-practices for infectious diseases would conclude that the healthiest choice is to get vaccinated/boosted in mid-September. But if you only read the tweet, and you compared it with the infrastructure of false COVID information that has been percolating in the darker corners of the internet for the past four years or so, it would seem reasonable to stay unvaccinated.
A single wrong data point can be debunked by something like the community note on the tweet, but you can’t debunk a worldview. In conspiracy theory world, correcting misinformation is often seen as confirmation that THEY (the world bank, the deep state, whoever) are threatened by the truth getting out. They also see mitigating infectious diseases, whether though vaccines, closures, or masks, as an overreaching government trying to control the population. One of their most hated examples of that totalitarian authority is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So it’s interesting that the anti-vax crowd is sharing this tweet in particular. The supposed source is the CDC—if there was any internal consistency to their worldview, you’d think they’d dismiss this tweet immediately, instead of using it to give their argument legitimacy. Conspiracy theories always unravel when you pull a thread, but it doesn’t matter, because conspiracy theories don’t come from a rational place.
Conspiracy theories are all the vibes
COVID conspiracy theories are all over the place and contradict themselves. Some people believe the disease doesn’t exist. Some think it exists, but it’s spread through 5G towers and is a kind of germ warfare. COVID vaccines are seen as a government plot to kill recipients, or a way of injecting nano-bots into our bloodstreams. The specifics don’t actually matter because conspiracy theories are a state-of-mind. They come from intuition, not knowledge.
Recent research indicates that conspiracy theorists are that way mainly because they feel unsafe in their environment and want to believe that the community they identify with is superior to others. Debunking these beliefs often leads to people doubling-down and finding more “sources” that support them. The drumbeat of news about new COVID variants is unsettling, and we live in a time when in-group vs. out-group dynamics are extremely prevalent, so it makes perfect sense that conspiracy theories would germinate and appeal to more people.
Are we all conspiracy theorists?
But it starts to feel uncomfortable when you apply these rules to yourself—and this is why I try to be charitable toward people who believe in weird things—because it really could be you or me, and we wouldn’t know it. Who doesn’t feel unsettled? Who can say they don’t think of their “tribe” as superior to other groups? (We’re much smarter than those dumb conspiracy theorists, amIright?) And isn’t most of what we believe intuition? I take CDC recommendations seriously, but I haven’t actually done a deep dive into the methodology of the research behind their conclusions. I just figure they know what they’re doing and leave it at that. Is that so different from believing in a YouTube video or something?
If you were told that a core belief you have is simply not true, wouldn’t you seek out information that confirmed your biases to hold your internal world together? Who is to say that’s not what you’re doing every day anyway? How could you ever prove you aren’t?