Alan Jones’ ‘dangerous’ coronavirus theory

 

Radio shock-jock Alan Jones apparently believes the response to COVID-19 is nothing but overblown hysteria and alarmism. Clearly, the virus didn't get the memo.

"In this modern world, at the slightest provocation it seems, we revert - despite all the money spent on education - we revert to hysteria and alarmism," he said on radio this week. "We now seem to be facing the health version of global warming. Exaggeration in almost everything. Certainly in description, and certainly in behaviour."

It may be a reassuring message. After all, he is preaching to his converted.

But he's reading from a script already abandoned by his ultraconservative media brothers-in-arms in the United States.

At the weekend, many right-wing commentators suddenly adopted a very different tone.

And it doesn't mesh at all with what they'd been pushing in recent weeks.

They had been downplaying it, insisting it was no worse than the flu.

They had been depicting it as a left-wing conspiracy to topple Trump.

They had been accusing medical groups and opposition media of "mass hysteria" and of being "panic pushers".

Then, on Friday, President Trump declared the virus a national emergency.

Now, their message is … different.

And Jones, it seems, is out of step.

Alan Jones has had a lot to say about coronavirus. Picture: Adam Yip
Alan Jones has had a lot to say about coronavirus. Picture: Adam Yip

ALTERNATE TRUTHS

Jones said: "Unless I'm moving in different circles, the almost universal reaction I am getting is that we have gone mad."

It certainly appeared the 2GB talking head occupied a different dimension.

His message contrasted starkly to that broadcast by those in the know - Australia's public health experts. The ones trained in the job. With actual experience.

The 78-year-old, himself in isolation to protect his multimillion-dollar business, insisted most people would get a "mild illness".

That's sort-of correct. Most recovered sufferers don't call it "mild". But Jones' understanding of viral contagion didn't extend so far as to accept even a mildly ill person could infect someone far, far more susceptible. Such as his mostly elderly audience.

The raw, indisputable numbers reveal 15 per cent of those over 80 with the virus will die.

Jones' on-air tirade came as Victoria, the ACT and South Australia declared public health emergencies. Even the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had advised against non-essential gatherings of over 500 people.

 

Now, Jones' handlers at 2GB appear to have been rattled by the public backlash.

There have been calls on social media to have him sacked for his "dangerous", "irresponsible" behaviour.

"I'm not sure downplaying a serious threat is the correct approach when many of his listeners are seniors. Get him off the air," one listener commented.

Commentator Mike Carlton labelled his comments "dangerous" and "reckless".

Writer Brett Debritz suggested it was "time for Channel 9 to shut him down".

He's now been compelled to issue something of a clarification.

In it, he blames "the media" for being "alarmist".

"I worry about my listeners … Our job in the media is to inform, to advise and not alarm and I think the media in all of this have done a very poor job," he says. "The fact that people are fighting over toilet paper indicates the deep sense of alarm."

He went on to repeat that eight of 10 cases will be mild. This time, however, he embraced the bigger picture: "But what is critical is those at greater risk, older Australians and those who are more vulnerable, particularly those with pre-existing conditions … it is a far more serious virus, and that is our concern."

He did not address his other assertions.

Jones will himself be fine.

He will be broadcasting in isolation from his Fitzroy Falls home for the duration.

 

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REALITY QUAKE

It's complicated. Coronavirus doesn't respond to gaslighting. Spin doesn't divert its all-consuming desire to reproduce. Marketing doesn't manipulate its behaviour.

So, COVID-19's single-minded reality marches ahead regardless.

Case in point: US cable news' most-watched figure, Sean Hannity.

"So far in the United States, there's been around 30 deaths, most of which came from one nursing home in the state of Washington," he said last week. "Healthy people, generally, 99 per cent recover very fast, even if they contract it."

None of this conformed to US health department analysis.

 

 

Commentator Laura Ingraham, whose show goes to air immediately after Hannity's, went so far as to say: "The public in some ways seems a lot more level-headed than the so-called experts. The facts are actually pretty reassuring, but you'd never know it watching all this stuff."

But prime-time right-wing talking head Tucker Carlson stepped out on a limb. His message was at odds with all his colleagues.

"People you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimising what is clearly a very serious problem," he said. "It's just partisan politics, they say. 'Calm down. In the end, this is just like the flu and people die from that every year. Coronavirus will pass, and when it does, we will feel foolish for worrying about it.' That's their position … But they're wrong."

 

 

Then, on Friday, his colleagues stepped through a portal into a new reality.

Hannity began by praising President Trump's handling of … "the crisis".

"Tonight, we are witnessing what will be a massive paradigm shift in the future of disease control and prevention," he said. "A bold, new precedent is being set, the world will once again benefit greatly from America's leadership … The federal government, state governments, private businesses, top hospitals all coming together, under the president's leadership, to stem the tide of the coronavirus."

Ingraham's reality also changed. COVID19 news is now "sobering and scary to hear."

But fellow Fox News talking head (with much lower ratings) Trish Regan didn't adapt in time.

Last week, she accused an alleged Democrat-media alliance of "yet another attempt to impeach the president". Amid a firestorm of public backlash, the Fox network declared her commentary show was suspended - indefinitely.

 

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CASHING-IN ON CONSPIRACY

Mike Adams calls himself a "Health Ranger". His anti-vax conspiracy theories and bogus cancer cures are all over the web. Every view triggers paying adverts.

His enticing message is one of doom and gloom: "It's over for humanity," he declares of COVID-19. "There will only be lone survivors. The strategy must now shift. You can be a survivor. We can help you survive, the information here at Infowars and what I do."

We can be sure he'll have something else to scare us about next year.

Such panic peddlers have a strong incentive to sell scares. Social media and internet advertising is geared to reward every click. And the more clicks a video or web-page gets, the more it is pushed into the faces of readers.

Which is why these stories keep changing.

One day, COVID-19 escaped a biological warfare lab. The next it's a weapon aimed at overthrowing the Communist state.

 

 

Public administrations are themselves increasingly eager to embrace the power of conspiracy. Beijing's diplomats have started rebroadcasting claims of "illegal US biological experiments" in China. Not to mention the unsubstantiated idea COVID-19 was brought to Wuhan by a US soldier.

Every conspiracy theory is tailored to a different audience. For clicks.

For example: That the secret COVID-19 plan was "accidentally leaked" at Event 201, a World Economic Forum and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported the event. (The claim being it was all a plan for the billionaires to profit).

QAnon, the extreme right-wing conspiracy movement popular in Australia's halls of power, claimed COVID-19 had been "patented" in 2015. But this refers to a study defining bird flu within the coronavirus family of viruses. Not COVID-19.

Alarmist stories sound fascinating: Was 5G responsible for mutating the virus? People are scared of the virus. People are afraid of 5G radio waves. But, scratch the surface, and you'll discover such an event is actually against the laws of physics.

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BELIEF VERSUS REALITY

Nonpartisan think-tank the RAND Corporation is worried about our post-truth world.

It wants to understand the power a good story holds over a democratic audience.

It has noted how facts and data are increasingly disputed in deliberate attempts to smother inconvenient truths. This is done through blurring the line between opinion and reality, ramping up the volume of a contrarian message, and emphasising the validity of one-or-two personal experiences over a more general assessment.

 

 

"Today's level of disagreement over objective facts is a new phenomenon," its Truth Decay report notes. "So how did we get here?"

It's about exploiting human nature.

People automatically try to fit events into their personal world views. It's called cognitive bias.

When people are presented with a challenge to their world view, they seek even irrational justification for their own. It's called cognitive dissonance.

And they redouble their efforts to reaffirm their view: It's called confirmation bias.

Mix with the rise of social media echo-chambers stressed education systems and political polarisation - and you get a fertile ground for conspiracy.

 

 

Global warming. Vaccines. Fluoridated water. Genetically modified food.

"Many well-educated people sincerely deny evidence-based conclusions on these matters," writes professor of philosophy Adrian Bardon.

"In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present evidence of a strong expert consensus."

And that's true. Sometimes.

"But things don't work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone's ideological worldview," he says. "In practice, it turns out that one's political, religious or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one's willingness to accept expertise on any given politicised issue."

In such cases, people have a motive to reason irrationally.

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Nurse Tamzin Ingram prepares for patients at the new COVID-19 Clinic at the Mount Barker Hospital in Adelaide. Picture: AAP Image/Kelly Barnes
Nurse Tamzin Ingram prepares for patients at the new COVID-19 Clinic at the Mount Barker Hospital in Adelaide. Picture: AAP Image/Kelly Barnes

It's not about ignorance, Prof Bardon argues. We've evolved to be stupid.

"Assimilation into one's tribe required assimilation into the group's ideological belief system," he says. "An instinctive bias in favour of one's "in-group" and its worldview is deeply ingrained in human psychology."

But that all falls apart in a crisis.

"This picture is a bit grim because it suggests that facts alone have limited power to resolve politicised issues like climate change or immigration policy," Prof Bardon says. "But properly understanding the phenomenon of denial is surely a crucial first step to addressing it."

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel



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