How collective complacency in an Age of Disinformation fuels the fires.
Standing on a lonely desert island surrounded by a black ocean of Malpaís, I never expected to meet a conspiracy theorist.
I don’t know why I’d convinced myself the encounter would be out of the ordinary. Roswell lurked a scant 90 miles away. If I’d squinted really hard, I could probably have seen the capitol of alien abduction from my hike to Nogal Peak.
But the ten thousand foot climb several days earlier didn’t reveal any alien landing pads or black op government sites. Just a breathtakingly lonely sea of sand and volcanic flows known as the Valley of Fires.
And north, hidden behind a low ridge, the Trinity site where America first exploded an atomic weapon.
The test, performed in the utmost secrecy, produced an explosion heard over a hundred miles away and sent a radioactive plume seven miles into the atmosphere. Naturally, the government sent out a press release.
An ammo dump explosion, they said. Big bang. All over. Nothing to see here.
Right. The equivalent of 27 kilotons of ammo. All going up at once.
Fallout covered a huge swath of southern New Mexico. Researchers only recently admitted those living in the path likely suffered. For seventy years though, the New Mexico “Downwinders” fought to have the damage to their health recognized. Cancer. Stillbirths. Illness. It took until last September – September 2020 – for congress to consider legislation to compensate them.
Conspiracies often have their roots in truth. But the lack of information inherent in a conspiracy prevents painting the full picture. People then speculate. Use their imagination.
Like the gentleman I found myself speaking to at the Valley of Fires campground dump station.
As a general rule of thumb, people at RV parks want to chat when you’re leaving and when you arrive – busy and stressful times in the nomad life. I’m not a chatty person, but I’ve developed a tolerance for this strange custom. We traded the usual; where are you from? are you full-time? yeah? how long? where’s your next stop?
Then came the obligatory COVID discussion.
He’d arrived recently, his next work camping opportunity shutdown by the pandemic. Free to go wherever he felt hemmed in by the restrictions states had started to apply. I could relate. Until we got to talking about the vaccine.
“Question is, are you going to take it?” he asked, all smiles and friendly. “They can track you with it you know.”
My first instinct was to dismiss his assertion much like I was emptying our RV black tank full of two weeks of excrement into the sewer.
I started to argue. Told him he’d been on Facebook too much.
Did I mention moving day is always stressful? I didn’t need to add a shouting match with a conspiracy theorist to the routine. We moved past it though and wrapped up our conversation on friendlier terms. But not before he offered another friendly warning.
“Research it,” he said. “You’ll see.”
So I did.
When we settled down at our next destination, I got out my phone and consulted DuckDuckGo for the answer. I simply typed, “Does the covid19 vaccine track you” into the search bar and waited for the results.
Top of the list, a DC news station had done their own reporting based on listener concerns about this nefarious plot. Their concise and rational fact-checking drilled down to the likely source of confusion.
In anticipation of a vaccine, the Defense Department had placed a large order with a syringe manufacturer. This manufacturer places RFID chips under the label of each syringe. The tech, much like scanning a barcode, allows quick tracking of when and where injections are given.
No devices in your blood. No anal probes. Just a measure of bureaucracy for the bureaucracy of bureaucracies.
So how did this seemingly reasonable and friendly guy insist on believing the government would be tracking him through an injection?
We often hear about how we’ve entered a post-truth world. I consider it a hyper-truth world. With so much information to pick from, you can Choose Your Own Reality. And the little Oracles in our pocket often dictate those choices.
Much like I whipped out my phone and pledged a sacrifice of bandwidth and privacy to consult the wisdom of the ancients, my conspiracy theorist friend had likely done the same. But depending on his location, his political preferences, and his previous search history, the results were likely vastly different from mine.
The deeper you are in Conspiracy Land, the deeper our digital Fates will drag you. But who was served the truth?
We’ll both say, “I was.” Yet, I give my results more credibility because of the thoroughness of the short report. It showed the original viral articles claiming the conspiracy and then followed those links to the pharmaceutical company – links that presumably verified their theory. A careful read immediately shows that these links never mention blood tracking chips, just the RFID chips on each syringe.
Most people won’t read that far. They won’t verify. They skim a headline and if it supports what they already believe, they go no further. Basic human psychology.
Even fewer people (like myself, a research and investigative junkie) drill down to sources of an article or report.
Then there’s common sense. Why would the Department of Defense bother injecting trackers into people when nearly everyone carries an active GPS beacon in their pocket?
Counterarguments will point at the NSA hoovering up cellphone data or other legitimately creepy and nefarious government programs. Again though, many of those are enabled by the devices we choose to carry around. There simply isn’t the technology or architecture available to effectively create a nationwide geofence to track RFID chips injected into humans.
That’s more along the lines of what I write: science fiction.
Having completed the search and chased down the leads, I felt I’d sufficiently followed up on my fellow traveler’s challenge to “do the research.” I’d put another conspiracy theory to rest, if only for my own peace of mind.
Yet I couldn’t shake the hidden truth. Like the one that had plagued the New Mexico Downwinders for decades. Conspiracy theories often have a measure of truth. Was there more to this than a willfully misinterpreted deal between the government and a syringe supplier?
Done with my research, the latest member digest from Medium waited in my inbox. I subscribe to a variety of topics, mostly centered on futurism, cybersecurity, and other tech. Lately, I’ve been trying to shake my cynicism and find the good these advances will bring, not the impending Dystopia.
Then a story by one of Medium’s top AI reporters caught my eye.
In his piece, Dave Gershgorn describes a burgeoning world of surveillance technologies threatening our privacy in novel ways. An industry already experiencing growth, the pandemic unleashed a tsunami of interest as social distancing settled into the public consciousness and policy.
Those orchestrating these invasive changes aren’t men in black suits. Nor are they top military brass seated around shadowy tables projecting holograms of the US aglow with tiny little dots for every man, woman, and child. They’re much more mundane. And that should frighten you more.
They’re a regular feature of your everyday life. Your boss. The company CIO. The stores you shop and the restaurants you frequent (or will once the vaccine is released and, assuming, enough people take it). The emergency rooms more and more of us will see.
All of them want to know where you are and what you’re up to at any given moment.
Because of COVID, there’s a desire to track employees at work and verify compliance with social distancing. Some workplaces are adapting systems already in place, designed to measure productivity. Dangerous workplaces like factories and warehouses use similar methods to increase safety.
Good for business? Maybe. But aren’t we just inuring ourselves to a total lack of privacy?
Recently, unprompted, my credit card company sent a new card capable of “touchless transactions.”
For years, hackers have known how to remotely skim credit card data from your wallet. A broadcast style chip only makes this easier. And worse, requires my consent.
When I used the card last, a receipt popped up automatically on my phone. A link there most hackers couldn’t make quite so quickly in the past.
How long before stores actively scan for your presence? Their systems will know the credit limit in your pocket, your previous purchases, and your last known location, along with other frequent stops from your cellphone data. They’ll suggest a path through the store. Aisles you maybe try to avoid. Fulfill purchases before you’ve pulled out your handwritten list.
The constant, insidious ping in our pockets. The steady, insistent collection of every last drip of data we perspire. Even after my research, I can come to only one conclusion about the conspiracy theorist’s claims:
His paranoia isn’t unfounded.
Image composite from Debora Cartagena, USCDCP public domain and janjf93 (pixabay.com) licensed under CC BY 2.0.