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how conspiratorial rhetoric diverts science during an epidemic

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References to a study that was pre-published and then withdrawn, a biological patent misinterpreted, or even links to scientific pseudo-portals with oriented content… since the beginning of the health crisis, countless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. “We are in the pantomime of serious scientific discourse. And for many people, this is an illusion ”, regrets Rudy Reichstadt, director of Conspiracy Watch, an information site 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 is not natural, but was 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 the ideologists of the plot both to criticize all the speeches of authority, in particular scientific, and at the same time to use it to discredit the speeches which are hostile with 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”.…

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 are sent countless articles 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 scope 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 “Strange similarity insertions” between SARS-CoV-2 and HIV has been identified and globally taken up by the complosphere 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 the conspiracy spheres usually throw anathema against the television media mainstream, they recently relayed a 2015 report from Italian television RAI on the experiences of Chinese virologists on bats.

“As always in conspiracy, what we discredit can also become an argument when it serves our own posture, sums up 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 [les preuves allant contre ses idées] as evidence of a larger conspiracy (to create a world government or whatever) that involves government, justice, Soros, and anyone who has ever been 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 good scientists and bad ones”laughs Rudy Reichstadt, who is astonished at the violence with which people who criticize P are treated on social networks.r Didier Raoult, infectiologist criticized by his peers for his methodology, but very popular in particular with certain conspiracy theorists. They are accused of being part of a large pharmaceutical plot, even qualified as “Collaborative scientists”, choked 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 ” 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, the 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 – despite Donald's reassuring posture Trump. Mr. Fauci, who is the principal health adviser of the American administration, has been the subject of multiple conspiracy charges on social media, reports the New york times, and now lives under protection.

Article reserved for our subscribers Read also Coronavirus: in the United States, the coalition of skeptics is losing ground

“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 so a link to Global Research, a false scientific portal known to spread conspiracy theories, because it served anti-American rhetoric from China. 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 open to conspiracy theories, and Marine Le Pen recently ruled “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 necessarily far right “, recalls 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 themselves 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 conspiracy, but it too claims untruths in scientific form to mask a form of imperience, when it 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 are personally not the ones that worry me the most, because we can relatively easily contradict them by argument, says Marie Peltier. Distrust is not easily contradicted. ”

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