“Is this the start of the new order that we’ve been promised?” barked Eileen, calling from Liverpool with a well-worn theory; that somebody, somewhere is crafting a new world order and we’re all puppets in their game. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the bottom of who they are – or their intentions – before a defamatory comment brought a swift end to Eileen’s time on my radio show.
It was March 2020 and the callers to my overnight talkRADIO show were clutching for any conspiratorial theory they could get their hands on to explain the unfolding madness.
“People have complained about 5G before the virus, that it’s going to cause problems,” said Shirley, calling from Birmingham, who didn’t believe it gave you the virus, but “all this electromagnetic stuff, not good for your body, that’s not going to help you fight off any illness.” I explain that 5G is lower on the electromagnetic spectrum than the Sun. That if she has a window in her house, that is technically more harmful than 5G. She outlines her concerns about the impact of high-speed internet on the high street, too. I can’t help feeling she’s found her enemy and she’s sticking to it.
The events of the last year have provided a moment of reckoning with the spread of conspiratorial misinformation. Up to now, conspiracy has felt reasonably harmless. The moon landing. JFK. Loch Ness. And then a public health crisis happens in an age of mass communication, and a whole new beast is unleashed. It’s been hard to quantify the impact of it’s spread. Up to now, it’s reared its head in the form of viral videos of people attacking BT engineers fitting 5G masts or this alarming clip of a family trying to drag a relative out of hospital.
This week, we may have seen the first example of it’s impact at scale. While the vaccine roll out has happened with astonishing efficiency, the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary were forced to appeal directly to the near two million over seventies who haven’t yet come forward for their jab. That’s from a possible eight million of them in the UK.
It is unfair to assume that conspiracy, misinformation and the mistrust it breeds has had a sizeable impact on those people deciding not to have the vaccine. Frankly, we just don’t know. That assumption wouldn’t account for those who can’t have it, or haven’t realised, or are cut off, or are hesitant for reasons beyond madcap theories.
But it would be naive of us to think it’s had no impact at all – and there are a creeping number of stories from family members who feel they have lost loved ones down rabbit-holes of misinformation. In fact, you may not have to reach that far into your family tree or Facebook friends list to find somebody in a similar position.
So, as the vaccine roll out reaches a critical milestone, how do we have that conversation with a friend or family member? How do we combat harmful conspiratorial thinking without it descending into a war? And… can we? We’ll speak to an expert who will give us a handy guide.
It’s not the only topic that we grappled with last summer that we still feel the effects of today.
Sadiq Khan has unveiled the task-force he promised during the height of 2020’s protests, to look again at public art in the capital. Although the usual suspects ran headlines that would have you believe the Mayor of London has assembled a team of avengers tasked with picking which statues to rip down, it’s more complex that that.
The group will take a wider look at public art – and ask a fair and important question: does the public art in the city reflect the public in the city?
It’s a conversation that we all too often have with our heart, rather than our head. My head tells me that an eradication of history is undesirable and my heart tells me that a black person shouldn’t be forced to walk beneath a statue of Edward Colston, the slave trader who profited from the confinement of their ancestors, on their way to work.
When I bring my head and my heart together, it tells me that this isn’t really about the eradication of history at all, and that we should find a way to preserve the events of the past in our minds without overtly celebrating the bits that, on reflection, we aren’t actually proud of. And there is one basic question that we don’t ask ourselves enough; shouldn’t the history we celebrate reflect the history that actually happened?
History, as is often said, is written by the victor. As we re-read the events of the past with a clearer eye and the perspective of time, the figures that we have chosen to erect as statues aren’t always the good guys. That fact is irrefutable. The events of the past are presented to us through the prism of those who want to tell it a certain way. Now we are afforded the benefit of hindsight, why wouldn’t we use it? Why wouldn’t we look again at who we revere as heroes – and, more importantly, look again at the consequences of their actions? Consequences that have, in some cases, long been hidden from view.
This conversation is uncomfortable. It leads to some people feeling attacked. I get it. We tie ourselves up in our history and it gives us a sense of purpose. It tells us where we have come from, who we are, and where we’re going. And there is nothing easy about being told that we may have got that wrong. But history is regularly reviewed and reappraised – and it doesn’t care what that does to our feelings.
This weekend, we’ll see if we can have that conversation with our head. Journalist Benedict Spence joins us to reflect on the work of the new commission – and what it’s role should and shouldn’t be.
As much as history is a marker of where we have come from, it’s also a guide to where we’re going. Military chief General Sir Nick Carter is keen for us to learn the lessons it offers. This week, he warned that the events of the pandemic risk replicating those that lead up to the Second World War. Born from the global economic crash of 1929, the early 1930s saw a rise in nationalism and international tension. We didn’t act quickly enough, it festered and presented itself in the rise of fascism.
It’s a stark warning from General Sir Nick – and not one we should ignore. The economic and social consequences of the pandemic are, at first glance, worryingly similar. So too is the distinct lack of international cooperation in tackling them. And so, if we are to avoid it, we need to know it. This weekend, a historian will take us back to the early 1930s. We’ll look at the parallels and how to avoid the pitfalls.
We’ll also check back in to Trump’s second Impeachment trial, as it reaches it’s conclusion this weekend. And we’ll find out more about the pigs that have learnt how to play video games. I kid you not.
See you in the morning.February 12, 2021 | No Comments