Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

The other virus

“We are the voice brave enough to cry out. [...] We are the candle in the dark room. We are the only hope this country has left. [...] We need to take this country back.” 

I want you to take a moment to guess where I got the words written above from. Because this language sounds familiar, right? Language that invokes fear that someone or something is threatening our country, our values, our freedoms, and it’s our responsibility to “take it back.” It can sound patriotic, even noble — the little guy against the big guy.

The quote above is actually from the website for the parody conspiracy theory: Birds Aren’t Real. This satirical “movement” claims the government secretly killed all birds over the course of the 20th century and replaced them with robotic surveillance drones that watch our every move. I know, it’s ridiculous and clearly a joke. Yet, it still sounds a lot like the language used in claims and theories many people believe in and even act upon today.

I bring this up because of the concerning rise of conspiracy theories in American politics that have emerged over the course of the last few years, from people blaming the spread of COVID-19 on 5G mobile technology to believing the virus was made in a lab or that the 2020 election was fraudulent despite a lack of evidence found by courts, election officials and the U.S. Department of Justice. This type of conspiratorial politics doesn’t exist only in one party or only within the realms of social media and the internet. Conspiracy theories about the election even helped lead to the riot at the Capitol in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, where language that is strikingly similar to the Birds Aren’t Real website was used: “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” “this is our house.” Then there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has gained quite a lot of attention recently over her past remarks and social media activity where she suggested the 2018 wildfires in California were caused by “space lasers” and used the phrase “so-called plane” when discussing the events at the Pentagon on 9/11. She is not just someone on the Internet but a newly elected congresswoman representing Georgia’s 14th congressional district. She is a concerning example of what happens when conspiracy theories leave social media and enter the congressional chambers. 

These sorts of outlandish theories which many Americans believe to be true honestly don’t look much different from the one that claims birds aren’t real — that was started as a joke. Members of the extremist, loosely organized network called QAnon believe America is run by “pedophiles and Satan-worshippers who run a global sex-trafficking operation.” Does that really sound any less outlandish or make any more sense than saying birds aren’t real? Yet, there’s something about these conspiracy theories that lure people in and make them want to find ways to believe they’re true. They can sound funny and entertaining, but — like claims that lead people to not attend to necessary preventative measures and potentially spread a virus that can be deadly or claims of election fraud that can lead to what happened Jan. 6 — conspiracy theories have consequences that can be seriously harmful and dangerous. Not only are they dangerous because they can lead people to actually act on them, but also because they are creating a political environment run on anxiety, massive distrust, misinformation and a dissolving need for truth and facts to justify belief. If there is no widely agreed upon consensus for truth, then nothing can get done to improve the lives of the American people, stop the spread of COVID-19, hold the next administration accountable for getting our country back on course and fixing the economy so people can return to work and provide for their families as they deserve to do.

I’m honestly not sure what the best approach toward confronting the age of misinformation and conspiratorial politics might be. Perhaps it’s becoming more aware conspiracy theories exist and are out there on social media, encouraging others (and ourselves) to fact-check and question before sharing and trying to be led by a desire for truth and not by emotion. Perhaps more social media platforms can develop systems to fact check and label misinformation to their users. Maybe the government could do a better job of being more transparent to gain public trust. 

Similar to a virus, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire and are almost impossible to contain. Also like the virus, politicians don’t do much to help but rather turn these dangerous and false claims into political rhetoric. Unlike the virus, there is no vaccine for misinformation and a political climate rampant with distrust and paranoia. The key to stopping the spread of misinformation might be similar to stopping the spread of COVID-19 — checking our own individual actions and holding ourselves accountable.  

Megumi Tamura is a freshman in the Gateway Program. She is originally from Ridgewood, New Jersey, and enjoys going to museums, watching political debates and eating Jersey bagels. She can be reached at mtamura@nd.edu or @megtamura on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.