conspiracy theories

Fake News Resource

We all try to instill critical thinking through our classes, particularly the ability to evaluate information. As one of my colleagues often says: “How do we get information about what’s happening globally? Through the news.” His point is that an understanding of the media is essential to any International and Global Studies class. And evaluating the media is particularly difficult in the current era, as more information has become digital, and there are fewer gatekeepers to information.

Kimberly Pendell at the PSU library has developed (with help from Beth Pickard) an amazing ‘fake news’ resource, which is itself an adaption of one created by librarians at Loyola Marymount University. You can find this great teaching resource here. The website talks about what is fake news, provides examples, and helps students to factcheck and contextualize information. It also provides key definitions, such as for the terms confirmation bias and click bait. I particularly liked the examples that the website gives, which help students to think more critically about the media. Over the last few years I’ve done a great deal of work around conspiracy theories, from the alleged murder of the investigator Alberto Nisman in Argentina (a paper that I wrote with Leopoldo Rodriguez), to competing narratives about the 2009 influenza pandemic. For this reason, my favorite example was #3, which showed how sources that peddle conspiracy theories can make themselves appear to authoritative. Finally, the resource has an embedded clip of Stephen Colbert discussing “truthiness.” Of course. …

Conspiracy Theories and Murder

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina in her role as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, carrying a Rechkemmer. Presidencia de la Nación Argentina [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet shot to his right temple. Nisman was the lead investigator in a 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. He had been scheduled to address the Argentine Congress the following day, to denounce the President’s actions related to the investigation. His death unleashed a media firestorm, as opponents of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner argued that he had been assassinated, while her supporters advanced their own conspiracy theory, which pointed the blame for his death at the nation’s security services.

Academics dislike conspiracy theories, which are typically omitted in social science theory classes, even though they are far more influential than the theories of Gramsci, Weber and Durkheim. There are many reasons for academics’ distrust of these theories, not the least of which is their historical association with political and ethnic persecution. At the same time, conspiracy theories are true “theories,” in that they provide an overarching framework for understanding the world. While they don’t have foundational writers, they also have their texts. They also emerge from the folk and not from intellectuals, and accordingly provide insight into popular attitudes, beliefs and fears. …

Zika fever in Brazil

"Rash on Arm due to Zika virus," uploaded to Wikipedia by FRED on January 10, 2014. See
“Rash on Arm due to Zika virus,” uploaded to Wikipedia by FRED on January 10, 2014. See

The health news from Brazil is truly remarkable, as the Ministry of Health is advising women in the northeast not to become pregnant at this time because of the emergence of a new disease in the Americas called Zika fever. Historically, Zika fever has been a very rare disease, which until 2007 had caused only a small number of diagnosed cases in Africa and Asia. The Zika virus was native to the forest of Zika in Uganda, where it circulated amongst monkeys. The disease suddenly appeared in 2007 in Micronesia, then spread to French Polynesia in 2013, followed by Easter Island in 2014, before finally arriving in Brazil. The disease causes many of the same symptoms as dengue (high fever, headache, joint and muscle pain, nausea, stomach pain, exhaustion, pain in the back of the eyes, conjunctivitis, a maculopapular rash, and swelling of the legs). This is unsurprising because dengue and the Zika virus are members of the same viral family (flaviviridae), and are both spread by the same species of mosquitoes, particularly Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus. There is no treatment or vaccine for Zika fever.

When it first appeared in Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, in April 2013, it was not immediately obvious that this was a new disease. As patients were tested for dengue, however, and the results came back negative, the medical system soon realized that something unusual was happening. While worrying, the disease did not seem disastrous when it appeared in Brazil. People can be infected with Zika fever only once. The symptoms typically last four to seven days, then the patients recovers. In some cases, patients suffer from immunological or neurological disease (Guillain-Barre syndrome) as a result of their infection, but this is atypical. When it appeared, the disease seemed to be less serious than dengue. Very few people have died from it in Brazil. As the epidemic continued, however, doctors began to report a bizarre increase in the number of babies born with a serious birth defect, microcephaly. This disorder is characterized by a reduction in the size of the head of the baby. The rate of this disorder has increased sharply, perhaps ten-fold over the last year. Some doctors at Brazil’s Hospital Oswaldo Cruz are now suggesting that the problem is unrelated to Zika fever, but rather is tied to another emerging infectious disease in the region, Chikungunya. …

Conspiracy theories and the 2009 influenza pandemic

The Journal of International and Global Studies is an open access journal, which has just published my article: Whom do you trust: Doubt and Conspiracy theories in the 2009 Influenza Pandemic. The article examines how people in widely separated world regions responded to the pandemic with motifs based around trust and betrayal. While the article focuses on influenza, it also discusses other diseases such as polio and Ebola. Currently the Ebola in West Africa has been waning, and Liberia has finally been declared to be free of the disease. Even now, however, public health workers have to struggle against a powerful narrative of denial, which depicts Ebola as a tool created by the West to sell expensive medications. As I discuss in the article, such narratives have deep roots.

Shawn Smallman

Randall Munroe, XKCD Creative Commons Attribution and non-commercial use 2.5 license
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