“Trust is built up over years,” said Sir Jeremy Farrar when he joined the WHO as its new chief scientist. He suggested we should invest in science and political systems, but most importantly in trust. In a recent interview with the Guardian, he stated that we need transparency above all, and that “there is a responsibility on scientists to speak out or they will leave a vacuum for others… Conspiracy theories may be amplified now.”
Many scientists now agree it is highly plausible that Covid-19 was leaked, albeit accidentally, from a lab. Yet in 2020 this was shut down as “conspiracy theory” by fact checkers, the media and prominent scientists, including Farrar. Unredacted National Institutes of Health emails show Farrar was “50:50” about whether the virus was leaked from the lab or was zoonotic. He also described lab practices in China as the “Wild West”. Despite sharing these thoughts confidentially with his peers, he quietly marshalled a group of five scientists to write a commentary in Nature Medicine, stating the authors “do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.” He went further and retweeted and endorsed scientist Peter Daszak’s 2020 Guardian article: “Ignore the conspiracy theories: scientists know Covid-19 wasn’t created in a lab.”
Farrar said one thing publicly and speculated another thing privately. He and his colleagues felt justified in this behaviour because they did not want to disrupt international harmony. Alternatively, you might say a clutch of senior scientists privately theorising about virus origins and conspiring from their hallowed heights about how to control the public narrative resembles a conspiracy theory, the exact thing he does not want amplified in a “vacuum”.
It is common for people in charge to think they know best what we should do, believe and think. At any time – but notably during the pandemic – there were many exhortations to trust the authorities and reject personal research. Tedros Adhanom, director-general of the World Health Organisation, said: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.” Prime minister Jacinda Ardern told New Zealanders: “We will continue to be your single source of truth” and “unless you hear it from us, it is not the truth.” The political and public health pronouncements of the last few years simply beg for George Orwell quote marks and on this occasion Farrar, Adhanom and Ardern call to mind Animal Farm’s Squealer: “No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”
Farrar was correct to identify the importance of trust – but how is trust built and how do we invest in it? Despite the proliferation of fact-checkers, truth verifiers, misinformation units, a veritable censorship industrial complex, and a new professional cadre of people-who-know-better-than-you, trust is not procured this way. If it were, we would be bathing in trust, whereas the outlook is much gloomier.
Recent results from “The UK in the World Values Survey” reveal the British public is not as convinced by its institutions as it once was. Confidence votes in Parliament, government, political parties, the civil service and the police have all fallen since 2018. And just thirteen per cent of the British public (and a mere five per cent of Gen Z) say they have “a great deal / quite a lot of confidence” in the press. Only Egypt scores lower than the UK. According to Ipsos, 69 per cent think Britain is in decline and 40 per cent think life will be worse for young people than it was for their parents.
You can attribute any cause you like to these results (Brexit, austerity, the Tories, take your pick), but the true cause is in plain sight. We don’t trust them, because they don’t trust us. Trust is earnt with truth. As the saying goes, a man is only as good as his word, which is probably why Farrar’s comments when he joined the WHO were met with a slew of outraged articles.
Farrar et al did not think we could be trusted with the truth or even with the uncertainty and debate. Similarly, Big Tech and media did not think we could handle the truth about the Hunter Biden laptop controversy. Social media platforms and YouTube removed or labelled content that went against the WHO guidelines du jour (it should be remembered that “facts” and advice evolved continually). They didn’t trust us to read articles and make our own minds up. SPI-B thought we were too complacent about the risk to our own demographic groups during the Covid-19 pandemic, and so the risk was amplified to the entire nation to encourage docility and compliance with lockdowns. Even a cup of coffee or meeting mates in the park could kill, as just two of the hyperbolic ads warned. As I exposed in my book A State of Fear (2021), even some government advisers were concerned by the “dystopian” levels of fear that were deployed to induce obedience among the public.
Daily death announcements, war footing-style Downing Street briefings, a vast advertising campaign and a blitzkrieg of behavioural science nudges were used to frighten the nation. In his leaked private Whatsapp messages, Matt Hancock, the then secretary of state for Health, shockingly discussed deploying the “new variant” to “frighten the pants off everyone”. What sophisticated and compassionate pandemic management from the health minister. The use of behavioural psychology and specifically the weaponisation of fear were symptoms of a government that had given up on trust and transparency and did not trust people to correctly assess and manage their own risk.
The use of alarmist and selective data was a particularly short-sighted way to grasp control, and later damaged trust. In one egregious example, Sadiq Khan quoted some surprising figures about face masks. He said wearing a mask reduced the risk of transmission from 70 per cent to 5 per cent, dropping to 1.5 per cent if both parties were wearing masks. The source was the British Medical Association (BMA). After persistent questioning, the BMA admitted to me that these figures had not been calculated by them (as they originally told me) but were “based on a presentation by Chinese infectious disease specialist Wenhong Xhang in March.” In other words, they were presented as reliable fact, but without a shred of evidence. The BMA withdrew its claims, but by then the figures had been published by national broadcast and print media as well as Twitter memes shared by Sadiq Khan; all are still in circulation now.
The emotional manipulation of populations and bald-faced lying about easily checked numbers has already corroded trust in government and public health authorities. Conspiracy theories are often blamed for vaccine hesitancy by public health scientists and politicians, who seem unable to grasp the fact they are the cause of lost trust when they employ conspiratorial means like nudge and fear to control people’s minds.
The Stanford University Virality Project recommended that multiple platforms should take action against “stories of true vaccine side-effects” and “true posts which could fuel hesitancy”. A censorship bureaucracy was willing to sacrifice truth to promote trust. This was one of the abhorrent revelations of the “Twitter Files”, which revealed a truth squad comprised of Big Tech, US government agencies, taxpayer-funded agencies and NGOs, and Stanford University.
How is trust to be sustained in the face of such “mistruths”, in the parlance of the BBC’s Disinformation and Social Media Correspondent, Marianna Spring? Mistruths are not the sole preserve of conspiracy theorists and bad actors, but also of political leaders and public health scientists. There simply isn’t room in one article to list all the false claims made by people we should trust. Spring has gone on to produce a series about conspiracy theorists, the modern bogeyman hiding under the bed, striking terror in the hearts of guardians of the narrative everywhere.
In a 2008 in an academic paper entitled “Conspiracy theories”, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule put forward a policy idea they termed “cognitive infiltration” to counter the “serious risks” of conspiracy theories. The authors suggested that, rather than just ignore theories or rebut them, which might give them credence, government should attack the “supply side” and change people’s minds from the inside. They recommended, inter alia, that government officials should use false identities online to infiltrate and undermine groups and individuals. In other words, serious academics recommended that governments hire people to spy on people, and try to change their minds furtively from the inside. Conspiracy theories resonate because people mistrust the government, and the concept of cognitive infiltration does nothing to change that.
Governments and authorities do not trust us, ergo they nudge to avoid debate and scrutiny, they monitor, censor, overstate, and under-deliver. The subsequent attempts to “build trust” are no more than the tightening of a technocratic net. It would be naive to offer them blind trust in return. This looks like a depressing stalemate, but in fact it represents two tremendous opportunities. The first is to reimagine and rebuild our institutions. The second, which I am concerned with, is placing trust back in ourselves.
Scepticism is a healthy quality that enables individuals to pause and consider
If society is an aeroplane in free-fall the first step is to put on your own oxygen mask. Your brain must be alert. Everybody wants to be an individual and know their own mind. To do this, you must be able to recognise the myriad ways that you are manipulated, from Big Tech to politicians, from news to advertisers, even the humble waiter who asks, still or sparkling. It is time to take back control of our minds. Once you learn to see the nudges, pokes and shoves or modern life, you cannot unsee them.
The world is a vast, confusing, chaotic place; there is an infinite amount of information in the universe, and we have very tiny brains for making sense of it. We do not have the time or the brainpower to think everything through rationally, so we have to trust other people to tell us what’s what. During a crisis, when we’re threatened, the brain needs shortcuts; ways to make decisions quickly. On the most obvious level, we listen to authority figures and leaders, and want to trust them in a time of crisis. This is the basis of our authority bias. Milgram’s famous study illustrated the dark side of this bias. He showed that people would give what they thought was a deadly electric shock to someone else simply because a scientist in a white lab coat told them to. This bias is weaponised against us. Controversially, one of the chapters of my new book Free Your Mind, co-authored with psychologist Patrick Fagan, recommends that you should be sceptical of W as one of the strategies needed to know your own mind and emancipate yourself from manipulation.
It is comforting to believe that governments and authorities are there to protect and serve us, but you shouldn’t always look up to Big Brother. This doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist, but even if it did, you shouldn’t be afraid of the label. There is cause to be wary of a neologism designed to shut down questions and dissent. Scepticism is a healthy quality that enables individuals to pause and consider wise decisions.
Animal Farm’s new management were just pigs standing on their hind legs, lording it over the other animals. In another cautionary tale, the emperor was a fool, walking naked through the streets. The great Wizard of Oz was just a little man standing behind a curtain. Leaders are fallible and flawed. They rightfully lose our trust when they do not trust us with the truth, or to manage our own risk or our own emotional lives. Trust is built by telling the truth, over time, and by nature it is reciprocal.
While we are waiting for this miracle, we should trust ourselves. The truth is our minds are wondrous and deserve to be free.
“Free Your Mind: The new world of manipulation and how to resist it” by Laura Dodsworth and Patrick Fagan is out on 20 July (£22, HarperCollins)