Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes spoke to participants in the Forum's inaugural webinar (video) on March 18 about the proliferation of conspiracy theories attributing the spread of the COVID-19 virus to the United States and Israel, the subject of his Washington Times article the previous day. The author of two books on conspiracy theories, Pipes explained that they follow a pattern dating back to the Middle Ages, when "Europeans found that two alleged conspirators were behind all the world conspiracy plots that they could think of. One was a secret societies and the other was the Jews." The former included such organizations as the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the Illuminati, while the latter were seen as operating under the sway of real or imagined leadership cabals.
In the modern era, these two strains of conspirators "transmuted into the United Kingdom and the United States on the secret society side and Israel on the Jewish side." Those who are "looking for some explanation for nasty events ... [such as] the JFK assassination, Princess Diana's death, 9/11, the great recession, and now COVID-19" invariably turn to these three culprits.
"We don't know exactly the origins of [COVID-19] ... but we know that it comes from Wuhan, China, and we know there was a Communist Party in China cover up, and we know that it spread from China to the rest of the world. There is no doubt about these things," said Pipes. "But conspiracy theories ... inevitably emerged and invariably focused on the three alleged conspirators, [though] the UK is a lesser factor this time around."
The primary purveyors of conspiracy claims are the media and governments of China and Russia, which point the finger at the U.S., and of Turkey and Iran, which point the finger at Jews and Israel. The goal of the conspiracy is usually framed as harming these respective countries economically or demographically, or as benefiting the U.S. and Israel. Elsewhere around the globe, "antisemites come out of the woodwork" upon hearing these conspiracy theories, said Pipes, noting that actress Rosanna Arquette did so hours earlier on Twitter.
"Ideas like this are pernicious and can do a lot of damage to the effort to solve the [COVID-19] problem, to find a remedy for the problem and to maintain international security," Pipes warned. They "need to be refuted" explicitly, as their seemingly self-evident absurdity is not sufficient to stem their spread. The fact that "Israelis are at the forefront of finding a cure," for instance, is interpreted by the conspiracy-minded as confirming, not contradicting, the claim that "this was [their] plot all along." In other words, he added, "The temptation with crazy conspiracy theories is to roll one's eyes and say, 'that's ridiculous and I'm not going to dignify it with an answer,' and I'm arguing the opposite."
Asked during the Q&A to elaborate on how this and other conspiracy theories can be refuted, Pipes replied,
Well, there's no shortcut. One has to know one's facts, one has to be prepared, one has to present one's case eloquently. There are plenty of platforms ... we've just created our own right here now. Well, everyone has a role in this. Everyone has a voice. It used to be that there were only limited number of newspapers and magazines. Now there's an infinity and everyoneshould be participating.
Asked if there could have been a "Chinese conspiracy" to release the virus, Pipes replied that it's "completely plausible" that the virus was created intentionally. "I would not put it beyond the Chinese government to be planning to use viruses, to have them in stock for warfare purposes." Whatever its precise origins, he disputed accusations that President Trump and others who call COVID-19 the "Chinese virus" are being racist:
It's not racism, it's accuracy. COVID-19 is also fine way of describing it, but we have the Spanish flu and the West Nile virus and the Ebola virus and the Lyme disease and others that have geographic indicators. What's wrong with calling it the Wuhan or Chinese virus?
Responding to a question about how the Chinese government can be held accountable for the spread of the virus, Pipes replied,
Well, it's very important that it'd be studied where this came from, that we find out eventually how it came to be. I know that this is a subject of great interest right now, but the Chinese government is doing its best to hide it. So yes, people who really understand these things need to be looking very closely at the origins of this virus. And I assume that it will come out, if not sooner than later.