I found myself thinking about conspiracy theories today, after two different people came and told me about loved ones who had fallen prey to some of the more toxic brands of misinformation going around these days— the one was my father, concerned about a friend of his who believes he is immune to the coronavirus because he’s gotten into drinking some kind of “safe” water disinfectant, supposedly used to treat kid’s pools and stuff like that, that he buys on the black market in Guayaquil; the other, a friend of mine who reported that the belief that covid-19 was created in a lab has taken root in her family. Whose lab, exactly, the respective family members couldn’t agree on, some believing that the Chinese government invented a virus that would target specifically the elderly as a way of killing off their economically inactive population, while others were convinced that the virus’s development had been financed by social media companies to boost the profit margins of facebook and zoom. Stories like these always give me the feeling of watching a train crash, a helpless contemplation of someone I care about getting brutally run over by something huge and irrational—and yet, the most concerning part about this is not the insane stuff people believe, nor the fact that the people who believe it are closer than one might think, but the fact that, being honest, there is something so goddamn appealing about these beliefs.
I think about my dad’s friend, marching maskless through the streets of Guayaquil, breathing in deep the infected air, impervious not to the disease, but impervious to the fear all around him, free from the terror that keeps the people that pass by walking huddled, their eyes to the floor and their steps quick; I think about the sudden coherence, the impression of some overarching order, that must come over you the minute that the faceless terror of a microbe is replaced by the human terror of a Facebook executive hatching some macabre plan. I reminds me of an old phrase I heard years ago, misquoted here: that no matter how horrible a conspiracy theory is, the function of it is still ultimately to give people comfort, because regardless of whether you think it’s the ancient aliens, or the reptilians, or the Chinese government who are controlling everything, you are still avoiding what, to many people, is a horror they are less prepared to accept: that there is no one in the control room; that no one is steering this ship.
My friend asked me if I believed any of that crap. I responded that you didn’t need to believe Facebook had created the virus to see how it was exploiting the situation, and that the same goes for the Chinese government. But I get it. I, too, am scared. Nothing seems to make sense, and everything we were raised to believe has turned out to be a lie. Impotence has never seemed so manifest as during these last few months. And yet every piece of disinformation we adopt, every belief to which we cling in our desperation, every piece of spurious comfort we are prepared to accept, only makes us stupider, more vulnerable to be lied to and exploited by the power groups who, no, don’t control everything—but they are trying to. They are trying to, and are only too happy to exploit our cowardice and our willing self-delusion.
Reject comfort. Reject the illusion of order. Learn, somehow, to find comfort in the senseless brutality of this world, and to take heart in the fact that no one understands it, and no one can control it.