Euan McColm: Tiresome tweeting a symptom of something more sinister

When turning to social media for solace keep a safe distance from the pandemic of manipulative conspiracy theories, writes Euan McColm
The emptiness of NHS Louisa Jordan at Glasgow's SEC has been a source of suspicion. Picture: John DevlinThe emptiness of NHS Louisa Jordan at Glasgow's SEC has been a source of suspicion. Picture: John Devlin
The emptiness of NHS Louisa Jordan at Glasgow's SEC has been a source of suspicion. Picture: John Devlin

During these grinding days of lockdown, social media has become increasingly important, hasn’t it? Facebook, Twitter and Instagram keep us connected during isolation. We get our news updates online and we get much of our entertainment there, too.

Without the instant connection Twitter gives me to friends – and a far wider community of people around the world – I know I’d have found the last month far tougher to get through.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But while there are lots of people using social media to bring a bit of light into our lives, there are a lot of utterly exhausting bastards on there, too.

Lockdown is bringing out the very worst in some people. The conspiracists and armchair experts are making the most of the crisis.

In recent days, we’ve seen the theory that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently released from hospital after surviving a bout of coronavirus that saw him transferred to intensive care and put under 24-hour watch, was not, in fact, as ill as the government would have us believe.

By the middle of last week, a newspaper columnist was encouraging people to sign up to this bizarre theory. He informed his followers that he’d asked questions – under freedom of information legislation – of the hospital where the PM had been treated.

The idea that doctors would be compelled to breach the confidence of a patient is a nonsense. But even if it wasn’t, what does this crank think might happen? Does he think that senior government figures, NHS staff – including nurses in an intensive care unit – and members of the media have agreed to participate in a monstrous deception but that these master plotters are to be found out by legislation that will compel them to admit they lied within 20 working days?

Perhaps you have a friend who is currently losing their mind and 
spraying the evidence across social media. I know I do. Last week I saw an old mucker support demands for an inquiry into the United Kingdom government’s handling of the crisis while ignoring the fact that the Scottish Government’s approach has not only been all but identical but that both administrations have been working closely throughout.

There are claims, too, about the temporary hospitals constructed to deal with coronavirus patients. These, go the story endorsed by people in my trade who should know better, are little more than publicity stunts.

Why, the exhausting people demand to know, aren’t these hospitals – including the Louisa Jordan in Glasgow (which, according to a passing genius on Twitter, should have been called the ICU Jimmy) – full to capacity?

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

These same people would, if demand had overwhelmed these facilities, now be asking why the powers that be hadn’t anticipated the need for beds.

Naturally, in Scotland, the constitutional battle is being crowbarred into the crisis. A row over the supply of PPE equipment to NHS Scotland by a manufacturer in England brought out the worst in some. The company in question, which had an existing arrangement to supply the NHS in England has stated that it was unable to deal with the health service in Scotland.

There was a legitimate story here, but even after UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock had said this was a mistake and that he had made no such order, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her Health Secretary Jeane Freeman were rather grudging in their concessions that this was a muddle rather than a plot.

Taking some collateral damage during this tiresome row was National Clinical Director Jason Leitch who dismissed the matter as rubbish many hours before Sturgeon felt compelled to do the same.

Did this lead some Scottish Nationalists to question Leitch’s competence? Of course it did.

There is a broad strand of Scottish Twitter that will not be happy until journalists are reporting that the UK government wants everyone north of the border dead.

Yes, we may agree that these are stressful times and that some of the worst excesses of behaviour come from places of fear and ignorance. But understanding the reasons behind this stuff doesn’t make it any less exasperating.

More than being exhausting, many of the theories about coronavirus being peddled online originate from sources with a specific and sinister agenda.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Broadcasters such as RT – the Kremlin-funded propaganda channel formerly known as Russia Today – have published a number of articles suggesting the lockdown in the UK is a move towards authoritarianism and that the virus is being used as a cover.

The SNP MP Stewart McDonald – to his great credit – has become something of a crusader against RT and others like them. Recently, he wrote: “These outlets care little about the impact of their actions on public health. They exist within a greater state architecture to legitimise and proselytise for the oppressive government in Moscow. Don’t be taken in by it.”

This is a warning worth bearing in mind when checking the provenance of any new report on the government response to the pandemic.

This is a tricky area. The defence of public interest is crucial to my business. It’s what drives news reporters. But it’s easy for those acting in bad faith to drape themselves in a public interest defence. They’re not suggesting anything, they’re just asking questions.

This was, effectively, the defence put forward by the TV presenter and journalist Eamonn Holmes who, during a discussion on ITV’s This Morning about a conspiracy theory linking coronavirus to the rollout of the 5G mobile phone network, said he didn’t accept “mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true”.

It was very easy, Holmes said, to say it was not true because that suited the “state narrative”.

“That’s all I would say, as someone with an inquiring mind,” he added.

This faux-intellectualism is the fuel that propels conspiracy theories.

While we continue to protect ourselves from the virus in the week ahead, we must also guard against buying into theories being put about by those with political agendas.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.