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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Phil Power | Countering coronavirus conspiracy theories with small acts of togetherness

Sometimes tough times bring out the best in us.  Sometimes the worst.

This time can call forth extraordinary acts of compassion, togetherness and solidarity. But a crisis like COVID-19 sadly often has the net effect of pulling people apart just at a time when we all need a sense of togetherness.  

My wife, Kathy, and I felt that over the weekend, as we ate Easter dinner alone at home, instead of with the usual cluster of friends and family.  Sure, we enjoyed our “quarantini” with friends on FaceTime before our meal, but having a drink together on the screen of an iPad doesn’t exactly generate the same sense of warmth that actual togetherness brings.

And, regrettably, a crisis like COVID-19 often calls forth all kinds of dark fantasies and conspiracy theories that get distributed around the world at lightning speed, thanks to ubiquitous social media.  The more serious the crisis, the darker and more conspiratorial the theory.

Up to now, Detroit’s unrest of 1967 was the most disturbing event in my memory.  The disturbances broke out around midnight on a July night. Soon, I could see fires burning and hear the thrum of helicopters from my apartment in Livonia.  

At that time, I was publisher of the Observer Newspapers, a group of community weeklies serving suburbs in Wayne and Oakland counties.  Soon, the conspiracy theories hatched: A band of rioters were marching out Grand River Avenue bound for all-white Farmington, where they intended to commit terrible acts.  

Neighborhood safety groups quickly formed; police were called; local radio stations (the equivalent in those days of social media) foamed. Because nobody knew anything much about what was really going on, conditions were fruitful for all kinds of bizarre speculations.

I gathered our reporters.  Some of us dashed to our printing plant downtown to get the papers out; others were assigned to hit the streets and figure out what was really going on.  

Because the local rumor mill was so frenzied, I decided to make our newspapers into a rumor control center, calling local radio from our newsroom and trying to bring sense to what could have become a pretty severe social outbreak.  As I remember, we put out a limited special edition of the paper and encouraged local radio and TV to use our stories.  

Fortunately, common sense and facts prevailed.  But I never forgot just how quick-spreading and popular conspiracy theories can be.  So, I was not surprised to hear what’s been cropping up with the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • In England, some telecommunication towers have been burned by people who believe that radiation from the new 5-G technology spreads the virus.
  • Widely shared Instagram posts have falsely suggested that Bill Gates planned the virus spread on behalf of the pharmaceutical companies.
  • In Alabama, according to The New York Times, Facebook posts claimed “shadowy powers” had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state.

As the adage suggests, “sunlight is the great disinfectant.” Reliable information is often the treatment for conspiracy theories.

Journalists surely are outnumbered by the sheer weight of the many-tentacled coronavirus crisis. But, from legacy newspapers in deep financial trouble to new nonprofit models like Bridge, front-line reporters are doing all they can daily to present the truth as best they know it and keep the public informed. 

Statewide, readers are turning to Bridge in record numbers. The daily chore of presenting the latest crucial information is never a game of perfection. Let us know when you think we can do better. But please also spread the news when it’s fair, accurate and just. Doing so is one small way we might find and act in a spirit of togetherness at this time.

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