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This essay outlines the broad themes of the conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies, regulators, politicians, and others are secretly working in consort against the public interest. This so-called Big Pharma conspiracy theory shares a number of features with other conspiracy narratives, but some features make this particular subgenre of conspiracy theory especially intractable and dangerous.
The Big Pharma conspiracy
theory Correspondence to:
Robert Blaskiewicz
Department of English
University of Wisconsin-
Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI
Robert Blaskiewicz
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Eau Claire, WI, USA
This essay outlines the broad themes of the conspi-
racy theory that pharmaceutical companies, regula-
tors, politicians, and others are secretly working in
consort against the public interest. This so-called
Big Pharma conspiracy theory shares a number of
features with other conspiracy narratives, but some
features make this particular subgenre of conspiracy
theory especially intractable and dangerous.
Keywords: Conspiracy theory, Pharmaceutical
companies, Paranoia, Vaccines
The so-called Big Pharma conspiracy theory shares a
number of features with all other conspiracy the-
ories. First, it shares the same basic plot: a relatively
small number of people are working in secret
against the public good. Second is a belief that
most people are ignorant of the truth and that only
a small number of people with secret or suppressed
knowledge (the conspiracy theorists) know the real
score. Third is the conspiracy theoristsbackward
approach to evidence: lack of evidence for the con-
spiracy is evidence for the conspiracy, as is any dis-
confirming evidence. Lastly, the way supposedly
confirmatory evidence is handled capitalizes on
common mental shortcuts, misperceptions, and
non-rational cues, which make the conspiracy the-
ories all the more memorable, compelling, and con-
tagious. This maddening mixture of mistakes makes
conspiracy theories very difficult to combat.
Big Pharma conspiracy theories, however, in all
their variety, constitute their own genre within the
larger category of conspiratorial narratives. In
much the same way that the gothic novel has its
own conventions (for example, a heroine impri-
soned, set in a dark old spooky house riddled
with hidden passages, and hints of the paranormal),
the Big Pharma conspiracy theory has a number of
conventions that set it apart from other conspiracy
theories. In this case, the villain is the
Pharmaceutical Industry. Its not the actual
pharmaceutical industry; rather it is the pharma-
ceutical industry as they imagine it. In these
stories, Big Pharmais shorthand for an abstract
entity comprised of corporations, regulators,
NGOs, politicians, and often physicians, all with a
finger in the trillion-dollar prescription pharma-
ceutical pie. Eliding all of these separate entities
into a monolithic agent of evil allows the conspiracy
theorist to mistakenly ignore the complex and con-
flicting interests that they represent. This agent is,
as are all antagonists in conspiratorial narratives,
improbably powerful, competent, and craven, and
it allows the conspiracy theorist to cast himself in
the role of crusader and defender of a way of life,
a Manichean dichotomy that was identified in
Richard Hofstadters classic treatise on Americas
recurring conspiracism, The Paranoid Style in
American Politics.
Like many conspiracy theories, there may be real
tangible facts that undergird the elaborate conspi-
racy theory. For instance, pharmaceuticals have
side effects, many of which are unpleasant, some
of which can be fatal. This basic fact of pharma-
cology, however, has become the basis of blanket
claims about the universal dangerousness of
pharmaceutical products. Additionally, not all
medical interventions are successful, and in our liti-
gious culture people often seem to not understand
that sometimes adverse outcomes occur when
everything is done correctly. Nowhere are these
ideas more prevalent than in conspiracy theories
involving cancer treatments. Cancer treatments are
often invasive and dangerous, and while the best
practices, in the aggregate, improve outcomes for
patients, they can still be unpleasant, even trau-
matic. They may fail certain patients entirely, so
that a patient may experience all of the side effects
of a treatment and none of the hoped-for benefits.
To the conspiracist, ubiquitous advertisements by
pharmaceutical companies become mind control
or brainwashing, while industry lobbying
becomes corruption.
© The European Medical Writers Association 2013
DOI: 10.1179/2047480613Z.000000000142 Medical Writing 2013 VOL. 22 NO. 4
Conspiracy theories may be a way to reassure
oneself that there is an order to our lives, that cala-
mity and disaster are not meaningless or random.
This in turn enables people to identify an enemy
to fight. When patients (and their loved ones) are
forced to accept a serious disease, they often experi-
ence powerlessness, especially when no cure is
available. This may itself trigger a search for a
culprit to blame for their suffering. Big Pharma is
a convenient target and is often imagined as with-
holding a cure. Indeed, a major premise of the Big
Pharma conspiracy theory is the cui bonofallacy:
he who benefits from misfortune must be the
cause of that misfortune. Such logic has been used
in other, non-medical conspiracy theories: Franklin
D Roosevelt got the war he wanted, therefore, he
was behind the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour;
George W Bush and his handlers wanted to go to
war in the Middle East, so they brought down the
World Trade Centre as a pretence to invade Iraq;
European Jews were de-ghettoized as Napoleon
swept across the continentthey must have been
behind the revolution that led to his ascent to power.
In the case of the Big Pharma conspiracy theory,
cui bono reasoning appears in a pair of often-levelled
charges. The more common charge is that a cure is
being withheld to keep people on more expensive,
less effective medical regimes. In the case of
cancer, the cheap, easy, and naturalsuppressed
cures range from baking soda, to marijuana, to vita-
mins, to apricot kernels (which are banned because
the amygdalin they contain breaks down into
hydrogen cyanide).
The more extreme charge is
that diseases are deliberately manufactured mol-
ecule-by-molecule or weaponised in labs and
released onto the populace in order to give compa-
nies an excuse to sell medications. One such high-
profile accusation of this, I think, was during the
2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Mike Adams, an
inexplicably popular online health guru (he calls
himself the Health Ranger) who advocates nearly
every conspiracy theory, made this charge in 2009
in a bizarre little rap called Dont Inject Me (The
Swine Flu Vaccine Song):
Dont you know the swine flu was made by
Pharmaceutical scam
All you parents grab your kids
And shoot em up just like guinea pigs,
Inject your teens and your babies in the crib;
And when they get paralyzed,
Thats when you realize
Theres no way to undo what you did.
The big drug companies are makina killing
Collectinthe billions and gettinaway like a
James Bond villain
Cause theyre willinto do almost anything
Just to make money with the flu vaccine.
Adams actually embraces both cui bono claims, that all
you need is vitamin D to ward off the swine flu (but
that drug companies cant charge as much for it) and
that the flu was manufactured in order to sell the
vaccine. He also manages to invoke a global depopu-
lation conspiracy alongside creating a market for vac-
cines: two agendas that are hard to reconcile, as one
involves killing people and the other saving as
many people as possible by selling them vaccines.
This is a typical feature of conspiracist thought a
2012 study by Wood, Douglas, and Sutton found
that the endorsement of mutually incompatible con-
spiracy theories are positively correlated.
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories play on many of
the same fears that run-of-the-mill Big Pharma con-
spiracy theories do including fears over side
effects, unnaturalsubstances in them and a
general suspicion of the profit motive in health
care but these theories are often supercharged by
the fears of parents. Parents who believe that their
children are vaccine-damagedand who are strug-
gling to understand and assign blame for an intract-
able, life-changing disease with no cure, have
created one of the most stubborn and dangerous
conspiracy theories. Following the widespread
attention received by Andrew Wakefields entirely
fraudulent 1998 Lancet article linking the MMR
vaccine to autism (withdrawn by the journal in
2011), childhood vaccination rates plummeted
below levels needed to support community immu-
nity in many areas, and children started to contract
diseases that many younger physicians had never
seen. The resilience of the conspiracy theory target-
ing vaccine manufacturers and researchers can be
seen in the fact that it persists despite over a dozen
studies demonstrating otherwise, including one
Cochrane review that had a sample size of about
14.7 million children.
The theory is as popular as
ever and is still pushed by the likes of Jenny
McCarthy, Generation Rescue, and innumerable
alternative medicine practitioners. Fear, it seems, is
more contagious than reason.
So, what can be done to combat the Big Pharma
conspiracy theory? Sadly, the theory will always be
around because peddlers of alternative medicine find
Big Pharma to be a useful adversary in their quest to
sell their questionable remedies and because of the
role that belief plays in peoples lives. Furthermore,
once the theory has taken root in someonesmind,
Blaskiewicz The Big Pharma conspiracy theory
260 Medical Writing 2013 VOL. 22 NO. 4
its often impossible to dislodge it, as the conspiracy
theory turns those who argue against it into paid
shillsor sheeple.Itisbesttocatchpeoplebefore
they fall into conspiratorial beliefs. Secrecy and ignor-
ance beget conspiracy theories; they are best combated
by education and transparency.
1. Hofstadter R. The paranoid style in American politics.
In: The paranoid style in American politics. New York:
Random House Digital, Inc.; 2008. p. 340
2. Melley T. Agency panic and the culture of conspiracy.
In: Knight P. editor. Conspiracy nation: the politics of
paranoia in postwar America. New York: New York
University Press; 2002. p. 5781.
3. Kenward M. Laetrile and the law. New Scientist. 1979
January 11; p. 88.
4. Wood MJ, Douglas KM, Sutton RM. Dead and alive:
beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. Soc
Psychol Personality Sci 2012;3:76773.
5. Demicheli V, Rivetti A, Debalini MG, Di Pietrantonj C.
Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2012;(2). Art. No.:
Author information
Robert Blaskiewicz is a Visiting Assistant Professor of
Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His
research interests include the rhetoric of conspiracy
theories and other extraordinary claims, as well as veter-
anscombat narratives.
Fun with medical studies
What a shame this study has finished, as judging by
the protocol I would have quite liked to have
Applications will be done by massage until com-
plete penetration by the medical staff.
Helen Baldwin
Scinopsis, Fréjus, France
Blaskiewicz The Big Pharma conspiracy theory
261Medical Writing 2013 VOL. 22 NO. 4
... 52 Our findings indicate that vaccine hesitancy is a multifaceted phenomenon, and the vast majority of vaccine-hesitant 53 Twitter users pragmatically use different grounds to justify their stance. Additionally, we found that vaccine-hesitant 54 content on Twitter comes from diverse geographical locations. While socio-economic factors do play a role in vaccine 55 hesitancy at the state level in the U.S., our study suggests that attributing vaccine hesitancy solely to a single social 56 factor, such as education, income, race, or voting behavior, is not appropriate. ...
This study analyzed Twitter posts related to vaccine hesitancy and its association with socio-economic variables in the US at the state level. The unique socio-economic characteristics of US states, such as education, race, or income, are significantly associated with attitudes toward vaccination. Our results indicate that vaccine hesitancy is a multifaceted phenomenon shaped by a complex interplay of factors. Furthermore, the research identifies two distinct sets of justifications for vaccine hesitancy. The first set pertains to political concerns, including constitutional rights and conspiracy theories. The second pertains to medical concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy. However, vaccine-hesitant Twitter users pragmatically use broad categories of justification for their beliefs. This behavior may suggest that vaccine hesitancy is influenced by political beliefs, unconscious emotions, and gut-level instinct. Our findings have further implications for the critical role of trust in shaping attitudes toward vaccination and the need for tailored communication strategies to restore faith in marginalized communities.
... Accordingly, it is important to address the question of how citizens of left-wing political orientation would feel about vaccines and vaccination if a left-wing president were in office. Given that one of the examples of public narratives justifying vaccine rejection is the Big Pharma conspiracy theory (see Blaskiewicz, 2013), we suggest that future studies examine the role of far-left political orientation in justifying vaccine advocacy or rejection, in addition to the role of PVD in this relationship. ...
Vaccines are essential for the eradication of diseases. Yet for many reasons, individuals do not embrace them completely. In the COVID-19 pandemic and with the possibility of the Brazilian population’s immunization against the disease, both political and health-related dimensions might have had a role in individual COVID-19 vaccination acceptance. In two studies (n = 974), we tested the hypothesis that participants’ vaccination acceptance is related to their past vote in the 2018 Brazilian presidential election (being or not being a Jair Bolsonaro voter) and their different levels of perceived vulnerability to disease (PVD). We further tested whether Bolsonaro’s opposition or ambiguous messages towards vaccination (vs. control) increased vaccination rejection among those who have (vs. have not) voted for him and who are low (vs. high) in PVD. Results show that Bolsonaro (vs. non-Bolsonaro) voters accepted less vaccination, with higher rejection rates when participants expressed low (vs. high) PVD. Also, when primed either with Bolsonaro’s opposed or ambiguous messages towards COVID-19 vaccination, such participants accepted less vaccines (vs. participants primed with neutral information). These findings are the first to show that the COVID-19 vaccine acceptance is related to their past vote and leadership influence but also different levels of perceived vulnerability to disease.
... This is consistent with what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this period the uncertainty has been high, the economic crisis has worsened, and the information received by citizens was complex, frequently contradictory, and not responding to their concerns (Douglas, 2021); generating a lack of trust in governments, vaccine manufacturers and healthcare professionals (Blaskiewicz, 2013;Casiday et al., 2006;Freeman et al., 2020). This great uncertainty could explain that, for COVID-19, CTs began to emerge immediately after the first news of the pandemic outbreak (Van Bavel et al., 2020), playing an important predictive role in mistrust (Szczygielski et al., 2021), and in raising fears during pandemic outbreak (Gori et al., 2021;Wheaton et al., 2021). ...
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Pandemics are a global threat, with vaccination being the main weapon of control. Fear, an unpleasant emotional state caused by a threatening stimulus perception, is known to be behind inhibitory behaviours; being, with mistrust, the basis of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories (CTs). It would be appropriate to know the fear influence on these theories. In this way, a cross-sectional online survey was applied to 2.987 subjects, in a COVID-19 context, characterized by high levels of uncertainty and mistrust, with the aims of analyse the relationship between some anti-vaccine CTs and vaccination intention (VI), also the influence of fear to vaccination (VF) on TCs and VI in this context. As result, all CTs were positive predictors of VF and negative predictors of VI. The correlations were significant (p <0.001), from moderate to high, for all analysed variables, with a significant and moderate directionality and size of association. Regression analysis indicated a moderate and significant explained variance (r2 = 0.54) of CTs + VF in VI. The analysis also indicates that safety and security CTs were more strongly associated with VF (r2 = 0.347) and VI (r2 = 0.46) than other CTs. Obtained results were more significant than those found by other researchers. Knowing in each case the main anti-vaccine CTs and the associated fear can help to plan programs to increase vaccination levels.
... This presents a problem for people who support a conspiracy theory or pseudoscience, because they must provide some reason to discount the position of domain experts. Experts are thus often assumed to be corrupted by financial or professional self-interest, such as "being on the take" from Big Pharma (Blaskiewicz 2013). By the same token, conspiratorial rhetoric frequently celebrates dissent from an expert consensus as heroic, even if the dissenters have little or no scientific training. ...
... In our study, fear of vaccine side effects, media/internet information, information insufficiency, older age, the presence of inflammatory arthritis, previous COVID-19 infection, the belief that infection confers much greater immunity than the vaccine, and attitudes against vaccinations in general were important negative factors for COVID-19 vaccination. It is well known that hidden and inadequate health information may accelerate anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs and rumours, interfering in the implementation of successful vaccination programs in different countries [44][45][46]. Moreover, some of the most relevant predictors of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy identified in our study are likely to be explained by fake news or the spread of imprecise or false information about COVID-19 on social media [47][48][49]. ...
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In our study, attitudes and perceptions of adult primary health care users regarding COVID-19 vaccination were evaluated. A single-center, cross-sectional study was conducted during a 1-year period (March 2021-March 2022) in a rural area in Crete, Greece. A sample of 626 self-reported questionnaires was collected at the end of the study period. Overall, 78% of respondents stated that they had received the COVID-19 vaccine. The reasons behind vaccine uptake were mainly personal beliefs and the desire to avoid professional constraints. The presence of diabetes type 2, fear of infection, and high perceived efficacy of vaccine previous flu vaccination, living with vulnerable persons, and the influence of scientific information were all significant predictors of COVID-19 vaccine uptake. On the contrary, unwillingness and/or uncertainty to be vaccinated was associated with fear of vaccine side effects, information insufficiency, media/internet information, older age, the presence of inflammatory arthritis, previous COVID-19 infection, the belief that infection confers much greater immunity than the vaccine, and attitudes against vaccinations in general were predictors against COVID-19 vaccination. In conclusion, taking into account all of the above predictors and particularly those regarding safety and vaccine effectiveness may guide future strategies appropriately tailored to specific characteristics and needs of different geographic populations .
... The conspiracy theory of a New World Order has several traits in common with antisemitic conspiracy theories, and generally claims that '[…] a group or groups are seeking to establish a single, all-powerful global government' (McConnachie 2013, 148). The conspiracy of Q-Anon and 'Big Pharma' also contain elements of the New World Ordernarrative (Blaskiewicz 2013;Bracewell 2021). As conspiracy theories are so eclectic, the different elements of a specific theory can easily be put together in different ways: 'The bricolage required by the improvisational style permits anyone to try his or her hand at rearranging the blocks, so that, like Legos, they may be combined into new structures' (Barkun 2013, 234). ...
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This article theorizes the connection between political distrust and conspiracy theories through a post-political framework. Following Luc Boltanski’s focus on the critical capacities of ordinary actors, it builds on interviews with participants of the Yellow Vest Movement in France who hold conspiratorial views of Covid-19 and the vaccine. The article explores how the interviewees’ critique mirrors that of post-political theorists. In particular, I use Rancière’s notion of subjectification and politics to theorize how conspiracy theories function as a means of dissent in the interviewees’ understanding of their experiences as well as in their own critique of and disillusionment with politics in France. As such, this article explores how political trust affected reactions to the pandemic, how political trust is interconnected with conspiracy theories and finally how such conspiracy theories can be viewed as biproducts of the post-political order.
The transparency and explainability of fake news detection is a crucial feature to enhance the trustability of the assessments and, consequently, their effectiveness. Textual features have shown their potential to help identify fake news in a transparent manner. In this paper, we survey a list of textual features, evaluate their usefulness in predicting fake news by testing them on a real-world dataset, and collect them in a Python library called “faKy” .
The 2016 U.S. elections, the Brexit vote, and other events in recent years have raised public and scholarly awareness around massive foreign propaganda efforts (Jamieson, 2018; Walter et al., 2020). While much academic attention has been given to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) and, particularly, their attempt to influence the American political landscape before, during, and after the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections (Benkler et al., 2018; Jamieson, 2018), Russia was far from the only country to deploy social-media propaganda campaigns aimed at influencing U.S. and Western public opinion. More-recent studies have highlighted both the influence of other foreign actors as well as the influence of these actors in domains that are not explicitly related to electoral politics, such as popular culture (Bay, 2018) and genetic engineering (Dorius & Lawrence-Dill, 2018).
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The anti-scientific and anti-vaccine movements gained momentum amidst the health and socio-economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. These widespread pseudoscientific beliefs and the endorsement of conspiracy theories likely contributed to the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. The aim of this study was to explore which variables best differentiated between groups of vaccinated (n = 289), vaccine-hesitant (n = 106), and vaccine-refusing (n = 146) young adults. The study was conducted online at the beginning of the mass vaccination campaign in Croatia when the vaccine just became available for younger and non-vulnerable members of the general population. The demographic variables, COVID-19 anxiety, and conspiratorial thinking regarding COVID-19 were entered into the discriminant analysis. The function explaining 89.2% of the group differences, mostly between the vaccinated and vaccine-refusing, was largely defined by conspiratorial thinking regarding COVID-19 (0.852), followed by variables with substantially less discriminative power, including COVID-19 anxiety (0.423; lower in the vaccine-refusing group), political orientation (0.486; vaccine-refusing leaning less to the left), financial and educational status (0.435 and 0.304, respectively; both lower in the vaccine-refusing group), and religiosity (0.301; higher in the vaccine-refusing group). These results confirm that among young adults, the decision to vaccinate against COVID-19 might be heavily influenced by one’s proclivity to engage in conspiratorial thinking.
Full-text available
Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.
Cochrane Review: Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children Demicheli V, Rivetti A, Debalini MG, Di Pietrantonj C. Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD004407. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004407.pub3 This companion piece to the review, “Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children,” contains the following pieces: The abstract of the review A commentary from one or more of the review authors, explaining why the review team felt the review was an important one to produce A commentary from Joan Robinson, Editor‐in‐chief, outlining the review's findings A review of clinical practice guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Canadian Paediatric Society and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), United Kingdom Some other recently published references on this topic
Conspiracy nation: the politics of paranoia in postwar America
  • T Melley
Melley T. Agency panic and the culture of conspiracy. In: Knight P. editor. Conspiracy nation: the politics of paranoia in postwar America. New York: New York University Press; 2002. p. 57-81.
Laetrile and the law
  • M Kenward
Kenward M. Laetrile and the law. New Scientist. 1979 January 11; p. 88.