Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

My dog is paranoid. If she thinks she hears something that might be a doorbell — such as, say, clinking pots together as I prepare a meal — she launches into a paroxysm of growls and howls, races to the front door, and barks furiously at nothing at all.

The same if I knock on wood. If I drop a book on the floor. If I skid my hiking boots into the closet.

Granted, I’ve only had her for five months. There may be unfamiliar sounds around the house, possibly sounds that remind her of threatening situations in her former life.

Nevertheless, her behaviour makes me suspect she’s been watching too much social media.

Most social media postings are, in my opinion, basically pablum for adults. Meaningless chat. But there’s a subgroup of users who see conspiracies under every news report.

As a journalist, I subscribe to several non-mainstream news sources. Sometimes merely following a link, to check the authenticity of a story, is enough to put me onto someone’s mailing list for a steady stream of fear, anger, and venom.

I’m coming to a reluctant conclusion that some inhabitants of social cyberspace are a mighty dissatisfied lot.

The most common theme of these postings is that someone is lying to us. Or cheating us. Or exploiting us.

Conspiracy theories are more than catching; they’re pandemic.

Such theories used to be about suppression of the facts about space aliens landing at Roswell. Now they’re about climate change. About the machinations of big banks and pharmaceutical companies.

And especially about the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Claims, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control have never had any samples of the coronavirus to test or evaluate. And that therefore their containment tactics are guesswork. Based on a hoax, a deliberate deception.

Or that there is no coronavirus at all; therefore there is no pandemic; therefore there have been no deaths that wouldn’t have been attributed to some other cause at any other time.

That mask-wearing deprives the brain of oxygen. Therefore that making children wear masks will lead to a whole generation of

mentally-deficient adults.

That Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the pandemic; therefore he must have planned it.

Or that he’s not really a doctor; therefore his medical advice has no value.

Most recently, the conspiracy media have gone ga-ga over two papers by Li-Meng Yan, a Chinese ophthalmologist and virologist,

published on a far-right website, without peer review, asserting that the coronavirus was manufactured in a Chinese Communist laboratory as a bioweapon.

Unfortunately, we can’t dismiss the rumour mills entirely. Occasionally, the alternative facts are right.

Colin Powell did lie to the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s supposed stock of nuclear and biological weapons. Michigan officials did cover up unacceptable levels of lead in Flint’s water. Reed Paper did dump 9,000 kilograms — almost 10 metric tonnes — of organic mercury into the Wabigoon River.

Despite impassioned denials.

And sometimes there’s a grain of truth hidden within the accusations. Fauci did warn three years ago that the Trump administration would be confronted by a surprise infectious disease outbreak.

That doesn’t mean he knew what it would be, or that he engineered it — only that the U.S. medical system was not prepared for a pandemic.

It’s also true Fauci does not deal with patients in a clinic, if that’s what “doctor” means. But he certainly is an M.D. — first in his class at Cornell Medical College — though he has spent most of his professional life in research and administration.

The problem is to sift that grain of truth out from the pyramid of assumptions and implications built upon it.

The internet’s many means of spreading information have exposed the raw venality of many in responsible positions. That’s good. We no longer assume that corporate executives or elected officials will always tell the truth.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are lying, either. The allegations on Twitter or Tik Tok are just as likely to be false.

Maybe more so.

The underlying principle on today’s anti-social media seems to be that any attack must be true. Conversely, if you’re defending something, you must have sold out to the powers-that-be.

That principle is never stated. But it seems to me a good guide for assessing the validity of what you see and hear.

There are reliable sources, such as snopes.com, where you can check media accusations.

Basic rule: when in doubt, check it out.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.

To contact the writer: rewrite@shaw.ca