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

Phil Power is founder and chairman of The Center for Michigan.

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 04/16/2020 - 12:49pm

Crazies always come out for these things and this type of stress makes people more suspectable, hoarding TP, guns and ammo!! Making arbitrary and even inexplicable nonsensical rules doesn't build confidence and makes resistance and some stupidity seem reasonable.

Jimmy L
Thu, 04/16/2020 - 1:13pm

You should have gotten together with your family like we did. It was great. Neighbors came over too because their families opted not to visit. It was a crowd, and a great show of absolute rejection of tyranny disguised as "bureaucrats trying to do the right thing". If you are afraid of getting the flu, stay home and isolate yourself. Otherwise, go out into the world where you have the right to be. Our ancestors fought and died for this and hopefully our children don't have to fight and die for it again (and don't you dare make a dumb joke about them dying from the chinese flu, 99% of its victims are elderly and obese and those people don't fight wars).

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 8:28am

It was not "absolute rejection of tyranny".

What you participated in was an absolute rejection of biology.

Bruce Johnson
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 1:17pm

and sanity.

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 9:14am

Yes, our ancestors fought to insure the freedom of our nation, and they continued to fight to defend our freedoms and to protect our way of life. You certainly have the right to behave stupidly. That right has been secured for you by others. I’m not sure your right to be irresponsible includes the right to endanger the lives of others including the obese and the elderly who, as you correctly point out, don’t fight in wars. They also have rights in our country though including the right to life. Also the do not make up 99% of Covid19 deaths.

Fri, 04/17/2020 - 9:34am

Jimmy, we too gathered with our family. Wouldn't have it any other way.

Geoffrey Owen
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 2:11pm

This isn't the Flu or the Chinese Flu. If you want to fight (ignore the rules of safe isolation) and die you will spare future generations of your mindlessness. It was not a great show of absolute rejection of tyranny, it was a basket of deplorables run amok. If this was a plague in the middle ages your body (along with your brilliant mind) would be tossed on the pile with the rest to be burned. I wish you luck Jimmy, you might get lucky and not spread the Coronavirus, but too late for not spreading stupid.

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 2:45pm

We are no longer a unified people Phil and that is something that this virus and its soon to be felt economic impact will only exacerbate, not cure. There won’t be a Pearl Harbor moment where differences are put aside for the greater good. This isn’t WW2 and those folks were a different people from today. That said, providing unbiased information as much as is humanely possible on a state level is appreciated. Thanks for the effort.

Bob Shishka
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 2:40pm

Thank you for your perfect response Publius.

This glaring lack of unity during the crisis has been the most difficult issue for me to endure. It's as if we are a nation of cats, all wandering around, each doing our own thing.

Some are still working and are being allowed to earn money... others are forbidden. Some are wearing masks out in public. Others aren't. Some continue to shop as if it's armageddon. Others only purchase what they need for the week. Some are fortunate enough to receive financial assistance during the crisis because their annual salary allows it. waitresses & janitors...not so fortunate. To them we say, "Pick yourself up by your bootstraps"... no help coming. Zero unity. Everyone on a different page.

States like Wisconsin & Illinois knowingly send people to the polls in the midst of this global pandemic. ( THIS action alone is what causes conspiracy theories to take flight Phil ) If we are to believe the media that this virus is a killer & we must self quarantine to protect ourselves and others, then in the very next breath say, "But it's perfectly safe to go vote today". Congratulations! You've just contradicted your message on national television & now, there exists just cause to question EVERYTHING you've said previously.

What do you do when people no longer feel the media and/or politicians can be trusted to tell the truth? ( once again...fertile ground to sew the seeds of conspiracy) When everything in print, radio, cable & network television is owned by the very same 6 corporations? ( Not a conspiracy theory) How is that trust deficit overcome?

Then there's each state in the country doing their own thing as if they were independently owned and operated Burger Kings. Void of any sense of shared purpose or the feeling that we are all in this together. We're not!

No, I couldn't agree with you more Publius. This is certainly no Pearl Harbor moment & that generation of Americans alive then, long since gone. I felt a much stronger bond happen after 9-11. It was a collective gut-punch to the nation. Every last American was in shock. But one thing it wasn't? It didn't destroy businesses across the land & prevent people from earning a living and taking care of their families. This situation is unprecedented in that regard. We are morphing into one, rather large, outdoor prison.

I'm glad Phil was able to enjoy sipping on a nice martini at Easter time, while visiting with friends & family on the internet. I mean who doesn't love a nice dirty martini? But for many people less fortunate than he, the holiday event was far from jovial.

Keep in mind, we are a nation where the majority of people could not handle a 500 dollar emergency...BEFORE Corona! This large portion of our society lives & survives by receiving that weekly paycheck. That is a fact...not a conspiracy. What happens then, when these people have zero dollars left and can no longer pay their rent, nor buy food? Maybe a good old fashioned,"Let then eat cake" will suffice? I'll tell you one thing they won't be doing. Sipping martinis & writing articles about conspiracy theories. LOL

Steve Gold
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 8:43am

Bridge Magazine is doing an outstanding job. I have found myself turning to Bridge more and more often during the pandemic. I’m going to “subscribe” by sending in my first annual donation of $50.00; and if Bridge maintains its current level of relevancy and quality, my subscription will be ongoing.

Michigan biz owner
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 10:28am

People should always question the news, even more so nowadays. Blindly accepting Covid 19 "facts" because the TV said so is beyond naive. With that being said, I believe we all have born rights to choose how to handle it, regardless of what you believe. If you choose to close your business, fine. If you choose to stay home fine, but putting 10M Michiganders on house arrest and shutting down the economy is indeed tyranny. Never give up liberty for security. Never.

Doctor Larry
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 1:28pm

House arrest? Overstating the case a bit, aren't you? You can leave home for any number of things including groceries, medicines, walking the dog, and just going out for some fresh air. All you are being asked is to stay at least 6 feet apart in order to minimize the likelihood that you may become infected.
And are you implying that the videos of hospital wards jam packed with covid-19 patients, interviews with overworked and stressed out healthcare workers, and obituaries for doctors and nurses who've died from their work fighting the virus are all exaggerated or even staged? And do you think the infection and death reports are nothing more than plots to scare naïve people? And do you think that almost all the governors (both Democrats and Republicans) of the 45 or so states that have instituted stay-at-home, social distancing, and economic shut-downs are hysterical fools and/or publicity hounds who have little or no interest in the welfare of their state's residents? Do you really believe this?

Dr. Tova Aviannah
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 11:54am

Many thanks for your informative article. I feel that truth telling is essential and misinformation is damaging in times of uncertainty. COVID-19 corona virus is a monster and attacks indiscriminately. Research is producing data on a daily basis as this virus is new to mankind. Keep on spreading truth and trust in your journalistic endeavours!

Geoffrey Owen
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 1:58pm

"Sunlight is the great disinfectant". I hope no one interprets this a a disinfectant for the virus as opposed to conspiracies.
The greatest conspiracy is coming from the WH down and that is that we have it licked and can return to work. We are down to a 4-5% daily increase. 1 person means 1.05 tomorrow, no big deal? Alert. $1 dollar at 5% daily is over $50 million in a year. Every county in MI has cases spreading. We aren't being tested. As soon as we open up the rate goes up. "Give me a paycheck or give me death" is the most dangerous conspiracy we are facing.

Dave N
Fri, 04/17/2020 - 4:48pm

The best disinfectant is truth, which cannot be purchased at Kroger and is in short supply. This isn’t a black-white or on-off scenario. Maybe in a year, the facts as to actual transmission will be revealed. As we acquire more data, our decisions should reflect that. What was relevant two months ago, may not be now and our assumptions today could be shown to be wrong a week from now. The simple fact is we have a virus that can effect anyone, but is more lethal to some segments of our society. The elderly and people with compromised health are at high risk and we need to protect that vulnerable segment as best we can. Other people do not have financial resources and need work. I’m guessing you like having power to your house and food that can be purchased at a store and medical workers if you get sick. Should those people quarantine at home? Are they not potential spreaders of disease? Of course they are, but we need people working to allow our civilization to continue. The virus is here to stay and probably could never have been realistically contained in any case. I wish we could all live to 100 in perfect health, but that utopian option isn’t open to most of us. I know abject fear will not solve anything and I’m sorry so many people feel it, but we can’t and shouldn’t hide in a cave until it’s safe, because it’ll never be safe, even without this latest virus. If possible, let common sense rule, not blind fear or political ideologues willing to exploit that fear.

Sat, 04/18/2020 - 1:01am

Many of the conspiracy theories sound just like Hollywood movies that ordinary people seem to find plausible. How many times have you seen movies with the plot that a CEO of a mega corporation decides he can get fabulously rich if he promotes a product that kills the people who use it? People are willing to suspend all logic when Hollywood tells us stories like this, so you'd have to expect that some people will believe conspiracy theories that are spread less formally.