‘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.

Related: John Oliver on prisons during Covid-19: ‘That’s not justice, that’s neglect’

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 where “conspiracy theories are sort of like ugly buildings and deeply tragic adult children in that Donald Trump loves to unleash them into the world and then refuse to take responsibility for them ever again,” said Oliver.

And he’s been repeating the same pattern throughout the pandemic. “Trump has passed on so many conspiracies that news outlets have repeatedly called him the ‘conspiracy theorist in chief’, although I would argue he’s not invested in any of these things that he’s spreading,” said Oliver. “He’s only interested in amplifying whatever he thinks he might personally benefit from.”

Or, as the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh put it: “Trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire here and he’s having fun watching the flames.”

Related: John Oliver on police use of facial recognition: ‘We’re about to cross a major line’

“Rush Limbaugh gets it,” said Oliver, “and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d say unless I was talking about toilet-transmitted chlamydia.” Worse, there’s high stakes to throwing gasoline on the pandemic fire, Oliver continued, as “people are going to get burned, making those flames not quite as fucking fun to watch”.

So what can be done? Social networks have started to step up their flagging of false content, but that won’t be enough given their lack of expertise in global health and the sheer amount of information, garbage or not, posted on the platforms each day. “The fact is, it’s going to be incumbent upon us as individuals to try to spot these theories and treat them with a skeptical eye before we believe them or indeed, spread them around,” Oliver said, and listed three expert-approved questions for guarding against slipping into conspiracy: is there a rational non-conspiracy explanation? Has this been held up to scrutiny by experts? And how plausible is this theory as a practical matter?

The practicality is especially pertinent given what we know about humans’ inability to keep secrets, let alone the estimated 411,000 people whose silence would have been required to pull off a moon-landing hoax, according to scientists. So many theories are beyond implausible because humans, by nature, love to talk – “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to organize, say, a mid-size surprise party for your cousin, but it’s borderline impossible to keep it quiet, because someone is telling Roxanne,” Oliver said. “No matter how many emails you send saying ‘no one tell Roxanne,’ Roxanne is finding out.”

And while “it is completely natural to want to scream at them ‘why do you believe this nonsense, you titanic fucking idiot,’” Oliver concluded, “now, more than ever, it might be important for you to try” to reach loved ones deep in the web of conspiracy theories.

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