Coronavirus Conspiracism

Radio Open Source
8 min readMay 17, 2020


A conversation with Errol Morris, Anna Merlan, and Jay Rosen about conspiracy theories and Internet videos. Listen today at 2 pm or anytime at our website.

We live in an age of credulous skepticism, of gullibility framed as its opposite. And it’s not all that new. In 2016, 72 percent of Republican voters doubted whether Barack Obama was a U.S. citizen. This was not the doubt of inquirers in pursuit of facts; this was the antithesis of the skepticism that’s sustained by research. There are conspiracy theories in all corners of the American political universe, but such far-right conspiracy theories now have a megaphone (the world’s most prominent birther) in the White House. And this month, coronavirus conspiracy theories that are easily proven false and that often align with Trump’s interests are spreading in the US, in crudely edited web videos and through social media.

So we made a show this week about Americans losing themselves in terrifying falsehoods even as tens of thousands of Americans’ lives have been lost to a viral pandemic. To do this, we spoke with a documentarian who’s long studied the interaction between truth and falsehood in moving images: Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who once made a movie that got a man off death row (the kind of thing that makes you ask yourself, in comparison, “What have I done lately?”), the director whose studies of Rumsfeld, McNamara, and Bannon have explored the American war machine and American authoritarianism.

Errol Morris speaks with us this week especially about a video from the disgraced former researcher Judy Mikovits. Morris didn’t note much cause for hope these days.

Errol Morris.

What’s bad is that people don’t think critically about stuff, not the fact that they’re presented with material that tries to manipulate them in some way or another . . .

And yet, as he points out on our show:

It’s an easy matter to go to the Internet. You can go to Science. You can read the papers that were withdrawn. You can research Judy Mikovits. You can see the numbers of articles as this video came out one week ago . . . dozens upon dozens of articles now analyzing the video and analyzing Judy Mikovits. That’s the good side of the Internet.

But the most powerful voice in the US remains a conspiracy-theory promoter who was elected president. Among priorities we can all agree upon, then, thinking critically and lucidly about conspiracy theories would seem to rank fairly low. And the resulting state of confusion about the facts of our situation might serve a purpose. Jay Rosen, NYU professor of journalism, says on our show that Trump’s plan is to bewilder us with chaos, and

to define one to three thousand deaths a day as normal. Create confusion about who is responsible for that and fire up his supporters so that they stay with him in the election and create so much fog and opacity in the rest of the system that other people give up and don’t even try to figure out what’s going on.

At Vice, Anna Merlan has studied coronavirus conspiracy theories and their falsehoods. Listening to her on this week’s show, you’ll hear how such theorists’ self-touted “skepticism” debases what skepticism is about, and in the Mikovits case is also an affront to the real and necessary work of actually critiquing the pharmaceutical industry (a good example of important crititical thinking about the pharmaceutical industry can be seen here).

Anna Merlan’s book on conspiracy theorists in power in the US.

Here’s Merlan on our show, on coronavirus conspiracy-video believers:

If you are completely swayed by one source of information and you don’t do any basic research to determine if even the simplest claims are true, then, you know, the makers of the video benefit. . . . If your purpose is to become more educated about coronavirus’s causes and spread, then, you know, it makes good sense to check as many sources as possible and especially as many reputable sources.

Anna Merlan.

But that thoughtful search for the truth isn’t advanced by videos promoting easily disproven theories. According to Errol Morris, documentary is about a search for the truth, whereas Mikovits’s videos are propaganda:

Obviously, someone is proselytizing, someone is preaching, someone is telling you what to think. . . .There’s very little argument, there’s little substance, there’s merely expostulated hectoring, lecturing. And there is no search for truth at all.

So there’s a difference between searching for the truth and conning a troubled audience, and a difference between exploring a dangerous subject and repeatedly succumbing to an inclination to believe the same sort of thing.

Read: A.S. Hamrah

At our site, you can also find the keen film critic A.S. Hamrah’s critical analysis of propagandistic online videos—from a Times opinion video to political ads to conspiracy theory videos. It’s the kind of critical analysis we need, the critical thinking Morris and Merlan find lacking among conspiracy theorists. Hamrah notes the scuzzy lofi nature of some of the most successful online propaganda, where “bad prose is once again a sign of authenticity. People who write well are suspect; those who are awkward are telling the truth.”

Watch: Gods of the Plague

Gods of the Plague (1970), directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, follows a crook recently released from prison who goes back into the Munich underworld, and it languorously follows other characters surrounding his story, too. Abrasive and moodily lit, sometimes campy/sometimes seriously dreary, this is a crime movie very much from the 60s/70s, meaning it’s entirely postmodern—reduced to anomic and anhedonic mood unmoored from much narrative.

Gods of the Plague.

Here’s the Vincent Canby from the New York Times in 1977:

“Gods of the Plague” is a distillation. It’s as if Mr. Fassbinder and his actors had taken a half-dozen Bogart films, mixed in an equal number of Cagneys and Robinsons, added a few Rafts and maybe one or two Monogram melodramas for flavor, boiled them until the stock was almost entirely reduced, and then used the residue to make this film in which gestures and attitudes, characters and events, have the formality of an art that’s been dead for 200 years.”Gods of the Plague” is the quintessential American gangster film if the quintessential American gangster film had been adapted and updated to accommodate a bunch of small-time Munich hoods for whom the holdup of a rather ordinary suburban supermarket is “the big job.”

Read: Titus Groan

It’s all pretty Gothic right now: a reality of labyrinthine mystery and eerie repetitions. What if we just intensify that and read Gothic fantasy?

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy requires you to accustom yourself to its Gothic reality, but being alive now means you’re already halfway there. Peake’s series starts with Titus Groan, set in a castle surrounded by a community of downtrodden woodcarvers. It’s a Dickensian story of inequality, but it’s also a Tolkeinian story about another kind of world, and a story of people formed by obsessive thinking. That last point probably makes it Dickensian again, but put all those things together and you have a lushly textured novel about a world built and maintained according to obsession, a world that continually intimates ecstasy and drudgery without completely closing the door on either.

Read: How to Be Depressed

Our friend George Scialabba — omni-reader and critic; Chris Lydon calls him “the last public intellectual” — has just published (with the University of Pennsylvania Press) an unsparing chronicle of pain that only writing sublimates, and only sometimes. In a moment of relief five years, George gave us a long and warm conversation on his history and his subject, now titled How to Be Depressed. He credits Chris, “Boston’s celebrated journalist at-large,” with asking “all the right questions.” George’s answers could change your vision.

Acute depression does not feel like falling ill, it feels like being tortured… The pain is not localized; it runs along every nerve, an unconsuming fire… Even though one knows better, one cannot believe that it will ever end, or that anyone else has ever felt anything like it.

Support us on Patreon and hear: Beth Blum

Beth Blum.

Most of us want more from our reading these days. Maybe that’s solace, or escapism, or some guide for actively ameliorating our situation, but whatever the case, we’re likely to look more intently for reading that we can use. We need all the help we can get.

Beth Blum, professor of English at Harvard, writes about the connection between self-help and literature in her new book, The Self-Help Compulsion. Over on our Patreon, you can hear her conversation with Adam Colman about literary self-help efforts in a time of crisis. When is self-help doing the work of something perilous, and when is it instead expanding our consciousness? What kind of literary experience is useful for the better kind of self-help, when we need help the most? Listen and find out.

Next Week: The Bach Project

Photo by Michael Lutch

Six continents, six suites. Thirty-six performances in thirty-six incredibly different places. A mission to the world.

This week’s ephemeral library

Remnick on the Trump-McCarthy Venn diagram. On NBA activism: Bomani Jones talks to Isaac Chotiner. Parenting and climate change at n+1. An objection to Benjamin Moser’s Pulitzer Prize for his Sontag bio. From the FT (free): Inside Trump’s Coronavirus Meltdown. Another way of seeing the Flynn story from Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald.

Next week — music! We deserve it. It’s gonna be great.

Take care everyone, stay safe!

The OS healthy skeptics



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.