Conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of hateful extremism – and during the pandemic they’re growing, warns Joe Mulhall.
It’s tempting to dismiss conspiracy theories as amusing or strange. Those that push them are usually seen as harmless eccentrics who gather in dingy pubs and frequent peculiar corners of the internet. In truth, though, conspiracy theories are the lifeblood of hateful extremism. They provide an “evil enemy” on which to blame world events and personal misfortune.
The tendency to mock and to minimise the threat posed by such beliefs gives them the space to spread, despite the danger of them being used to scapegoat and justify attacks on particular groups. In an age where conspiracies are flourishing, it’s only by understanding both the allure and the threats they pose that we can begin to deal with this challenge in a meaningful way.
Believers in conspiracy theories tend to reject official versions of the truth, to read intention into seemingly random events, and to view unrelated events as interconnected. As such, conspiracy theories provide a framework for interpreting unpredictable and bewildering events taking place across the world. It’s no surprise, then, that belief in conspiracies tends to spike in popularity during times of turmoil, crisis and upheaval.
There is also a frisson that accompanies uncovering supposedly forbidden information: the sense that one is unravelling some hidden truth can be addictive. David Aaronovitch, author of Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History, highlights a narcissistic element here, as conspiracy theories enable believers to inhabit the role of selfless “truth-seekers”. They are heroically struggling against shadowy forces, superior to a supposedly sheep-like (“sheeple”), brainwashed public that accepts the false official versions of events.
In our era of “fake news”, where hostility to authorities and traditional gatekeepers is widespread, the feeling of empowerment arising from the belief that one possesses the “real” truth can be highly attractive. Most worrying, however, is the use of conspiracy theories as a tool to attack minority groups.
Belief in a conspiracy theory naturally entails belief in sinister conspirators, often portrayed as possessing an almost superhuman degree of cunning. Whilst the identity of these alleged conspirators varies according to the conspiracist, there is one group in particular that has, for centuries, faced blame for an enormous variety of upheavals, tragedies and calamities, both historical and mythic.
Jew hatred has deep roots within the tradition of alternative conspiracy thinking. While the (so-called) “Jewish Question” is hotly debated among conspiracy theory communities, antisemitic tropes are rarely far removed from a diverse array of conspiratorial notions, whether that be 9/11, the refugee crisis, climate change or the current global pandemic.
While not all conspiracy theorists are far right in nature, most on the far right are conspiracy theorists, meaning that there is a significant cross over between the two worlds. It has long been the case that the international far-right has played an important role in the creation and dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Whether it is Holocaust denial and myths of secret Jewish power or newer theories such as Eurabia, the Great Replacement or Pizzagate, far-right conspiracy theories can have deadly consequences.
Many begin by adopting ostensibly harmless conspiracy theories about the assassination of JFK or the faking of the moon landings and progress towards more dangerous ideas about Jewish control and the New World Order. This makes the prevalence of conspiracy thinking during the current pandemic especially worrying. While not all who get entrapped by monocausal and conspiratorial explanations for the current pandemic will head further down the rabbit hole towards the far-right, a number undoubtedly will. Since the onset of the Coronavirus crisis misinformation is effecting our ability to respond effectively. If left unchecked, this could have a significant effect on our ability to successfully deal with the crisis. So far, a series of conspiracy theories have managed to gain traction online. Most notable is the 5G conspiracy, which explains that the coronavirus is either caused by the rollout of 5G or is being used as an excuse to lockdown people while governments build 5G infrastructure that will eventually control society.
Another, more dangerous, conspiracy centres on anti-vaccine theories. There have long been individuals and groups that claim that vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) cause autism in children. During the coronavirus crisis, we have seen the ‘anti-Vax’ movement spread general misinformation about vaccines and raise doubt over the safety of the as-yet uncreated Covid-19 vaccine.
There are numerous permutations of these theories, including the idea that the virus was manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory in China, or that Bill Gates’ involvement in the vaccine efforts is part of a plan to implant tracking devices in people, and that ‘Big Pharma’ is on a mission to kill millions. There has also been a concerted effort to attack and erroneously discredit public health authorities and delegitimise scientific experts.
In just a few months we have seen the emergence of all types of conspiracy theories. So called ‘event’ theories refer to limited events, such as the belief that the virus was manmade in China. Systemic conspiracy theories have a much broader focus, such as belief in who controls a country or the world being run by secret elites: in the current pandemic, this centres on 5G and on vaccines. Finally, there are superconspiracy theories that combine all the other theories under a single umbrella explanation of an all-powerful force controlling all things.
Worryingly, the number of people encountering these conspiracy theories is remarkable. The 26-minute Plandemic documentary, featuring the discredited scientist Dr Judy Mikovits, racked up over eight millions views in just a week, before belatedly being taken down by major social media platforms. Similarly, the veteran conspiracy theorist and notorious antisemite, David Icke, claimed a Jewish group was behind the virus, that 5G left people unable to absorb oxygen and that it was not possible to catch the virus from shaking hands, in content that was reportedly viewed more than 30 million times online.
How toxicity spreads so rapidly
One of the reasons Covid-19-related conspiracies have spread so far and wide is the remarkable speed with which they have been formulated and then disseminated. To understand this, we need to look at the role of the existing conspiracy movement, parts of which overlaps extensively with the far right.
Almost all the current conspiracies are developments or mutations of pre-existing theories. Rather than being created from scratch, people have sought to explain the pandemic through the lens of their existing beliefs. The longstanding anti-vaccine movement, previously focused on MMR, has merely presumed the as-yet-uncreated Covid-19 vaccine is similarly pernicious. The anti-5G movement predates the Wuhan outbreak so believers presumed it was the latest tactic being used to rollout the ‘dangerous’ cellular network.
For those who believe in systemic and superconspiracies (about secretive and all-powerful controlling elites), Covid-19 has been portrayed as an obvious control tactic by those same shadowy forces.
Once formulated, these ‘new’ conspiracy theories have been disseminated via the existing conspiracy and far-right movement. While a spate of recent Facebook groups has emerged – some with remarkable success – it has primarily been existing conspiracy theorists and far-right activists using existing infrastructures that have most effectively spread them. That includes infamous figures such as David Icke and Alex Jones of Infowars, who communicate with large audiences.
In the past few months we have been able to watch the creation and dissemination of a vast array of such conspiracy theories, several of which have reached extremely worrying levels of traction. The ramifications of this could be significant, not only undermining people’s belief in the institutions of democracy in the long term, but also reducing the efficacy of a vaccine once created. To inhibit these negative effects, it is important that we conceptualise these conspiracies not as ‘new’ but rather as adaptations and mutations of existing beliefs about which we already know a huge amount. We must also look beyond their content and focus more on the means of their dissemination, which is happening via well-established conspiracy and far-right networks. It is only by understanding this that we will be able to formulate an effective way to retard their growth and undermine their impact.
Dr Joe Mulhall is Senior Researcher at HOPE not hate. Formerly he was a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London where he also completed his PhD on the postwar far right. He has published extensively on the international far right and discussed his research on the BBC, CNN and Channel 4 news among others. If you have a tip, get in touch at [email protected]enothate.org.ukTwitter