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Untangling the web of words surrounding COVID-19 conspiracy theories

In this Feb. 28, 2011, file photo, director of research Judy Mikovits talks to a graduate student and research associate in the lab, at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease, in Reno, Nev. Tech companies scrambled to take down a 26-minute documentary-style video called “Plandemic” of Mikovits promoting a string of questionable, false and potentially dangerous coronavirus theories.
Associated Press

E. B. White’s classic children’s tale “Charlotte’s Web illustrates the impact that words can have when a neighbor’s life is on the line. Charlotte, a tiny spider who befriends a pig named Wilbur, desires to save Wilbur from certain death at the hands of a farmer who is fattening Wilbur for a feast, so she weaves words into her webs that alter how people see the otherwise seemingly ordinary pig. Charlotte’s word-filled-webs give confidence to Wilbur and organize the other farm animals to help Wilbur win a prize at the fair, but, more pointedly, they end up saving Wilbur’s life. For Wilbur, and for those around him who were persuaded by words that Wilbur was no ordinary pig, Charlotte, herself a seemingly unremarkable creature, nevertheless changed the world.

Currently, many words are being spun in webs that surround the COVID-19 pandemic. While some use words to build confidence, inspire hope or save life, others use words to tear down, incite anger or fear, or accuse someone of being at fault. These latter attempts to weave word-webs of blame include misinformation and conspiracy theories — such as the recent “Plandemic” video.

Doctors, scientists and medical professions have repeatedly rejected these conspiracy theories, but some of our friends, neighbors and even political leaders have nevertheless become entangled in them. Why are people attracted to conspiracy theories in the first place, and how might we approach others in ways that can help them reject these conspiracy theories?

Conspiracy theories give people a false sense of being in control. They demand that others are responsible for a problem and attempt to incite fear and anger. They are also rooted in blame, or the assignment of responsibility to someone else for something that has gone wrong. While the desire to find fault can be appealing to some people, it ultimately builds a wall between the person blaming and the person or group being blamed.

Thus, conspiracy theories are counterproductive. Assigning responsibility to someone else for a problem does not only leave the problem unsolved, but it actually makes things worse. Conspiracy theories divide people from one another when what is really needed is to bring people together. Because people who come together for productive and honest dialogue can generate ideas that help them find solutions.

All of the work that people spend trying to find out whom to blame could be more productively put into building relationships of trust, hope, empathy, love and kindness.

And that leads me to my second point: How do we persuade our friends and neighbors to reject conspiracy theories, without blaming them or inciting anger or fear in them? How do we build word-webs that inspire confidence, hope and love for others rather than fear, anger and prejudice? And how do we inspire and persuade others to use their own capacities for language and symbol-using to weave webs that give confidence, inspire hope and promote health?

Sometimes you and I hear well-meaning people doing the online equivalent of shouting at someone else to stop. But telling one another to stop, while necessary in some cases, usually does not help as much as the speaker wants it to or even as often as it should. Sadly, those who need to be told to stop often do not stop when they are told, but just keep weaving — often even more quickly or intently than before.

That’s where persuasion comes along. While people cannot be forced to believe anything, people can be persuaded. Words cannot only change reality but can also create it. Words are like lenses through which people see the world — lenses which, when we listen to someone else, we put on for the duration of their speech. Conspiracy theories offer people lenses of misdirection — lenses of fear and anger, of blame and of arrogance, and of prejudice. But there are much better lenses that we can use to see one another and the world.

Persuasion also involves building relationships of trust. Only when two people see that their interests are joined, a notion that rhetoricians call “identification,” can they begin to cooperate.

The potential for identification increases on an individual basis when people can see one another, hear one another, and honestly and openly share their thoughts, beliefs and concerns. Sometimes, identification means being creative. It means putting one’s self in the shoes of another person. By doing that, one gains insights into methods that can persuade people to decide for themselves.

This also means not expecting perfection, either from ourselves or from anyone else. We are all human, and we are all in this together. Instead of blaming neighbors, friends, family members or people on the other sides of the world, let us look inward at what we can do to be a part of the solution. We can be friends and not enemies, we can build bridges, not walls, and we can promote health by being cautious and careful with our words and actions. And we can trust and encourage qualified doctors, scientists and medical professionals who have dedicated decades of their lives to understanding these subjects and serving society with regards to them.

The author of “Charlotte’s Web,” E. B. White, once said, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” That timeless message of love and friendship, that parable of how words can change the world, is a message that we all continue to need.

In our own attempts to weave webs of words, may we, like Charlotte, spin webs of words to share our love with others. Doing so can and will change the world.

Dr. Jarron Slater teaches in the Department of Literacies and Composition at Utah Valley University.