The American right is now largely defined by various debunked conspiracy theories such as the big lie about the 2020 election and, of course, those involving all things COVID. While some conspiracy theories are intentionally manufactured by those who know they are untrue (such as the 2020 election conspiracy theories) it does seem possible that other theories get their start by people simply being bad at reading things correctly. For example, consider the claim that there are microchips in the COVID vaccines because of Bill Gates.
The Verge does a step-by-step analysis of how this conspiracy theory evolved, which is an excellent example of how such conspiracy claims can arise, mutate, and propagate. The simple version is this: in a chat on Reddit, Gates predicted that people would have a digital “passport” of their health records. Some Americans who attended K-12 public schools have already used a paper version of this; my old report card envelope from my elementary school has my relevant health records in it. The idea of tattoos to mark people who had been vaccinated has also been suggested—as a solution to the problem of medical records in places where record keeping is spotty or non-existent.
Bill Gate’s prediction was picked up by a Swedish website focused on biohacking and they put forth the idea of using an implanted chip to store this information. This is not a new idea for biohackers or science fiction, but it was not Gate’s idea. However, the site used the untrue headline, “Bill Gates will use microchip implants to fight coronavirus.” As should surprise no one, this led to my adopted state of Florida.
Pastor Adam Fannin of Jacksonville read the post and uploaded a video to YouTube. The title is “Bill Gates – Microchip Vaccine Implants to fight Coronavirus,” which is an additional untruth on top of the untrue headline from the Swedish site. This idea spread quickly until it reached Roger Stone. The New York Post ran the headline “Roger Stone: Bill Gates may have created coronavirus to microchip people.”
Those familiar with telephone might see this as a dangerous version of that game as each person changes the claim slightly until it has almost no resemblance to the original. Just as with games of telephone, it is worth considering that people intentionally made changes to achieve their desired effect. In the case of a game of telephone, the intent of intentional changes is to make the final version as funny as possible. In the case of conspiracy theories, the goal is to distort the original into the desired straw man—one that will get the most attention and make the target look as bad as possible. In the case of Bill Gates, it started out with the innocuous idea that people would have a digital copy of their health records and ended up with the claim that Bill Gates might have created the virus to put chips in people. In addition to showing how conspiracy claims can devolve from innocuous claims, this also provides an excellent example of how conspiracy theories sometimes do get it right that we should be angry at someone or something but get the reasons why we should be angry wrong.
While there is no good evidence for the conspiracy theories about Gates and microchips, it is true that we should be angry at Bill Gate’s COVID wrongdoings. Specifically, Gates used his foundation to impede access to COVID vaccines. This was not a crazy supervillain plan; it was simply the old method of “monopoly medicine.” As such, you should certainly loath Bill Gates for his immoral actions; but not because of the false conspiracy theories. As an aside, it always strikes me as a bit absurd that when there are so many real problems and real misdeeds to get fired up about, conspiracy theorists spend so much energy generating and propagating imaginary problems and misdeeds. Obviously, these often serve some people very well by distracting attention from these problems. But back to the origin of conspiracy theories.
While, as noted above, people do intentionally make false claims to give birth to conspiracy theories, it also makes sense that unintentional misreading can be a factor. Having been a professor for decades, I know that people often unintentionally misread or misinterpret content.
For the most part, when professors are teaching basic and noncontroversial content, they endeavor to prove the students with a clear and correct reading or interpretation. Naturally, there can be competing interpretations and murky content in academics, but I am focusing on the clear, simple stuff where there is general agreement and little or no opposition. And, of course, no one with anything to gain from advancing another interpretation. Even in such cases, students can misinterpret things quite significantly. To illustrate, consider this passage from the Apology:
Socrates: And now, Meletus, I will ask you another question—by Zeus I will: Which is better, to live among bad citizens, or among good ones? Answer, friend, I say; the question is one which may be easily answered. Do not the good do their neighbors good, and the bad do them evil?
Socrates: And is there anyone who would rather be injured than benefited by those who live with him? Answer, my good friend, the law requires you to answer— does any one like to be injured?
Socrates: And when you accuse me of corrupting and deteriorating the youth, do you allege that I corrupt them intentionally or unintentionally?
Meletus: Intentionally, I say.
Socrates: But you have just admitted that the good do their neighbors good, and the evil do them evil. Now, is that a truth which your superior wisdom has recognized thus early in life, and am I, at my age, in such darkness and ignorance as not to know that if a man with whom I have to live is corrupted by me, I am very likely to be harmed by him; and yet I corrupt him, and intentionally, too—so you say, although neither I nor any other human being is ever likely to be convinced by you. But either I do not corrupt them, or I corrupt them unintentionally; and on either view of the case you lie. If my offence is unintentional, the law has no cognizance of unintentional offences: you ought to have taken me privately, and warned and admonished me; for if I had been better advised, I should have left off doing what I only did unintentionally—no doubt I should; but you would have nothing to say to me and refused to teach me. And now you bring me up in this court, which is a place not of instruction, but of punishment.
Socrates’ argument is quite clear and, of course, I go through it carefully because this argument is part of the paper for my Introduction to Philosophy class. Despite this, every class has a few students who read Socrates’ argument as him asserting that he did not corrupt the youth intentionally because they did not harm him. But Socrates does not make that claim; central to his argument is the claim that if he corrupted them, then they would probably harm him. Since he does not want to be harmed, then he either did not corrupt them or did so unintentionally. This is, of course, an easy misinterpretation to make by reading into the argument something that is not there but seems like it perhaps should or at least could be.
My point is that even when the text is clear, even when someone is actively providing the facts, even when there is no controversy, and even when there is nothing to gain by misinterpreting the text, it still occurs. And if this can occur in ideal conditions (a basic, clear, uncontroversial text in a class), then it should be clear how easy it is for misinterpretations to arise in “the wild.” As such, a person can easily misinterpret text or content and sincerely believe they have it right—thus leading to a false claim that can give rise to a conspiracy theory. Things are much worse when a person intends to deceive. Fortunately, there is an easy defense against such mistakes: read more carefully and take the time to confirm that your interpretation is the most plausible. Unfortunately, this requires some effort and the willingness to consider that one might be wrong—which is why misinterpretations occur so often. It is much easier to go with the first reading (or skimming) and more pleasant to simply assume one is right.