Coronavirus: how conspiratorial rhetoric diverts science during an epidemic.
Investigation "Citizen investigators", extremist activists or populist politicians cite scientific studies in support of their sometimes conspiratorial statements.
their sometimes conspiratorial remarks.
The crisis due to the new coronavirus has been polluted by numerous information sources based on incomplete, flawed or truncated scientific studies.
The crisis due to the new coronavirus has been polluted by numerous information sources based on incomplete, flawed or truncated scientific studies. STR / AFP
References to a study that has been pre-published and then withdrawn, a biological patent misinterpreted, or even links to scientific pseudo-portals with oriented content ... since the beginning of the health crisis, countless false articles and conspiratorial videos cite scholarly studies in support of their demonstration. And successfully.
Very popular on social networks, they rallied 26% of French people to the conspiracy thesis of the virus created in the laboratory, according to an IFOP / Conspiracy Watch poll. “We are in the pantomime of serious scientific discourse. And for many people, this is an illusion, "laments Rudy Reichstadt, director of Conspiracy Watch, an information website specializing in the fight against conspiracy.
Let's take an example that has been widely circulated on social networks and elsewhere: a real-fake television news program, which explains that the virus responsible for Covid-19 would not be natural, but would have been created by a laboratory funded by billionaire George Soros to annihilate the Chinese and Japanese populations. He summons two medical experts, a list of biological engineering patents, and a sophisticated study from 2007 on the human enzyme to which coronaviruses cling.
What if this smoking theory was accredited by science? You have to take the time to dig to realize that no: the specialists are not; the patents shown have no relation; the pointed study was read askance. Regardless, this video montage, posted online by the far-right Swiss conspiracy site Kla.tv, was among the most shared links in France on Facebook in early March.
A classic of conspiracy…
The reference to scientific studies is a classic rhetorical figure of conspiracy theories, explains Marie Peltier, historian and author of Obsessions: behind the scenes of the plot plot (Inculte, 2018).
"It is a question for conspiracy ideologists to both criticize all authoritative speeches, especially scientific ones, and at the same time use them to discredit speeches that are hostile to their theses. All of which draws the reader into a very large number of references, often contradictory, which maintain a real paradigmatic doubt. "
Julien Giry, doctor of political science at Rennes-I University, traces this strategy back to conspiracy theses that appeared in the 1960s after the assassination of John Kennedy, "with quotes, academic titles, footnotes from page ".…
... revitalized by the explosion of prepublications
The big news is the recent evolution of academic practice, with its race to the number of publications and especially the explosion in the 2010s of open platforms, like bioRxiv, where innumerable articles are sent which n have not been peer reviewed, as required by peer-reviewed journals.
"You can put in studies that are much less solid and anyone can go and get them and interpret them in their own way, without having the rigor or the skill to distinguish a simple four-page study from a scientific analysis of scale peer review ”, worries Alexandre Moatti, science historian at Paris-Diderot University, author of Alterscienc: postures, dogmas, ideologies (Odile Jacob, 2013).
It was thus on the bioRxiv site that, at the end of January, an Indian pre-study on "insertions with a strange similarity" between SARS-CoV-2 and HIV was identified and taken up worldwide by the complosphere in order to promote the thesis of 'a virus created in the laboratory. It has since been screened by scholars and its own authors, but continues to be cited as a reference by proponents of the thesis of a laboratory virus.
Experts who inflate their titles
This mobilization of science is indeed one way. "Knowledge is exclusively put forward when it goes in the direction of the desired thesis, notes Julien Giry. The rest are dismissed on the pretext that they are agents or useful idiots of the plot. Selective sorting is carried out. "
conspiratorial websites and YouTube channels even have their own expert address books compatible with their theses, the legitimacy of which is readily exaggerated. "These heterodox scientists express themselves outside their sphere of expertise or inflate their titles. They are presented as visionary geniuses, while their positions are often ultra-marginal or even non-existent in the scientific world, "specifies Mr. Giry. This is the case of Andrew Wakefield, an anti-vaccine figure, who is actually a gastroenterologist.
Conversely, an enemy for a day can turn into an ally for the occasion. So while conspiratorial spheres usually throw anathema against mainstream television media, they recently relayed a 2015 report from Italian television RAI on experiences of Chinese virologists on bats.
"As always in conspiracy, what we discredit can also become an argument when it serves our own posture," says Marie Peltier. It is in this relationship of ambivalence to speeches of authority that one of the crux of the problems of current disinformation lies. "
Good scientists and bad scientists
This rhetoric is all the more devious since, unlike a scientific approach, it leaves little room for contradiction and debate. As Stephan Lewandowsky, professor at the University of Bristol puts it with humor:
"A conspiracy theorist receives [the evidence against his ideas] as evidence of a larger conspiracy (to create a world government or whatever) that involves government, justice, Soros, and anyone who has one day was in the same supermarket queue as Al Gore in the 1970s. ”
These oriented readings of scientific work often lean against a Manichean vision of the world. "There are the good scientists and the bad", quips Rudy Reichstadt, who is surprised at the violence with which are treated on social networks the people who criticize Professor Didier Raoult, infectiologist criticized by his peers for his methodology, but very popular especially with some conspiracy theorists. They are accused of being part of a large pharmaceutical conspiracy, even described as "collaborative scientists", chokes Mr. Reichstadt.
"Raoult has become the providential man for many people. People say he has a solution, period. There is an anti-scientific temptation there. "
Experts victims of online harassment
The conspiratorial rhetoric, demanding, impervious to criticism, seems to have definitively plagued the public debate. To the point of giving rise to waves of uninhibited intimidation. In February, the Twitter account of the far-right conspiracy site ZeroEdge was suspended for "harassment". He accused a Chinese researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology of creating the Covid-19 virus, publishing his personal information and inviting his community to "visit him".
In France, Karine Lacombe, one of the many scientists who warned against the lack of scientific evidence of the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against Covid-19, was the subject of an online harassment campaign linked to her links of interest with pharmaceutical laboratories. She ended up closing her Twitter account.
In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, was one of the first to sound the alarm and request emergency containment measures to fight the coronavirus - in despite the reassuring posture of Donald Trump. Fauci, the chief health adviser to the US administration, has been the subject of multiple conspiracy charges on social media, reports the New York Times, and is now living under protection.
"Science is misguided in all directions"
Behind these derivatives, a reality: the conspiracy activity is often carried by political objectives. In mid-March, Chinese Foreign Minister Zhao Lijian shared a link to Global Research, a bogus scientific portal known for spreading conspiracy theories, because it served China's anti-American rhetoric. For Marie Peltier, "conspiracy has become a real political weapon and some people simply use it for mercantile or electoral purposes".
Certain spheres are specialists in the matter. According to American biology researchers Jedidiah Carlson and Kelley Harris, the far right is the most active non-academic community on bioRxiv, and the most influential in the mediatization and decontextualization of scientific studies. In France, voters in the National Rally are the most susceptible to conspiracy theories, and Marine Le Pen recently deemed it "common sense" to question the origin of the virus.
However, the profile of conspirators is not reduced to a political camp. “Antivaccines, there are also many on the left. As for the "yellow vests", they are not specifically far-right, "said Alexandre Moatti. It is important to distinguish two very different types of approach, says Julien Giry:
"Far-right organized groups have know-how and expertise, almost a legitimacy to disseminate conspiracy theses. But they should not be put on the same level as those which I call the citizen investigators, who start from a given event, ask questions, which is healthy, and lead to sometimes conspiratorial hypotheses. "
The challenge of scientific mediation
Between the two, a continuum exists, fueled in France by a year and a half of social tensions, "balkanization" of information and questionable public speaking. "We cannot say that the government is a conspiratorial, but he too claims untruths in scientific form to mask a form of imperitia, when he claims that we do not need masks", recalls Alexandre Moatti, sorry to note that "at the moment, science is misguided in all directions".
Therefore, what scientific mediation to oppose this almost generalized diversion of science? That’s the whole point, as the era of all-video and the sensational algorithms of YouTube are breeding grounds for teasing and untruthful montages. "These speeches compete with a popular scientific popularization. But it's up to all of us to educate people to tell the difference between the two. And popular science videos on YouTube, that too! Recalls Mr. Moatti. And to cite the intervention on France Culture by the infectiologist Didier Sicard about the animal origins of the virus, as an example of pedagogy.
"The most extreme and caricatured cases are not personally those which worry me the most, because one can relatively easily contradict them by argumentation, estimates Marie Peltier. Distrust is not easily contradicted. "
Newspaper "Le Monde".