News

Coronavirus has invigorated conspiracy theorists and brought together disparate groups, many of them flourishing as social media platforms stand down moderators. By Rick Morton.

How Covid-19 energised conspiracy theorists

An anti-vaxxer protests outside Parliament House in Melbourne last Sunday.
Credit: AAP Image / Scott Barbour

In many ways, at least for a select group, the coronavirus pandemic has been incredibly convenient.

Here was a deadly, disruptive virus that originated in China and swept through the world, reanimating old conspiracy theories about vaccination agendas and 5G towers and opening the fissures of far-right extremism in Western countries.

Covid-19 offered a grand, unifying narrative, a theory of everything. To a conspiracy theorist, it was perfect.

“If you already think there is something untoward going on in the background, then a major and unexpected event like the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be the kind of thing you start factoring into these plots and these capers that the mysterious masterminds behind the scenes are engaged in,” Dr M. Dentith, a conspiracy theory researcher and teaching fellow at the University of Waikato, tells The Saturday Paper.

“So it is very much a case of going, ‘We think something is already wrong, here is something that is going wrong that everybody agrees is going wrong, how does that relate to the agenda?’”

At first blush, the anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne and Sydney last week – which drew only 100 people in Victoria and a few dozen in New South Wales – had little in common. The purported concerns ranged from vaccination to telecommunications towers, child sacrifice and assertions that the pathogen was a “plandemic” or “Covid hoax … brought to you by Satan”.

But the signs and banners were bringing together anxieties that each fitted into a bigger picture, one that coronavirus holds together.

In this version, the chaos of the virus brings control. Vaccines and restrictions are precursors to a one-world government. Suspect technologies such as 5G will be used to suppress dissent. And atop all this sits a coterie of global elites who will profit from the new order.

At the Melbourne rally, the protesters chanted for the arrest of billionaire Bill Gates, whose philanthropic foundation funds vaccine research and delivery programs, particularly in developing nations.

Gates is the sort of figure who helps these disparate elements lock together. He sits at the apex of a conspiracy pyramid, linked by his interest in public health and his status as one of the “elite”.

On Wednesday, a far-right Australian group posted on Gab – a social network known for hosting extremist groupthink – that “men like Gates operate a shadow government that decides what the agenda for the world is going to be”.

The site checks off a list of grievances that have their provenance in anti-globalist – and often anti-Semitic – tropes, including the “global warming agenda, atmospheric geoengineering, the war on men, the frankenmeat agenda, the anti-white education agenda, the smart cities program, the UN Sustainable Development Goals” and the “takeover” of the World Health Organization.

“The totalitarian response to Covid-19 and the destruction of small and medium sized businesses in Western countries through lockdowns is an extension of this same tyrannical globo-communist agenda,” the post says.

Victoria University’s Dr Debra Smith, who specialises in violent political extremism and especially hardcore right-wing actors, tells The Saturday Paper these groups “have been making moves to tap into the strategic opportunities presented by the anti-vaccination movement and the anti-5G movement”.

The pandemic has been their moment.

“Covid-19 has provided a powerful way to do this, by pulling together disparate concerns and anxieties, and linking them back as ‘evidence’ of the core conspiracy,” Smith says.

“By doing that, they are able to provide a ‘solution’ to people’s anxieties through projecting them onto an enemy that, if only defeated, would pave the way to a better, safer world.”

The conspiracies often turn back on themselves, like an ideological möbius strip, though this matters little. Fidelity is outranked by force.

In this way, adherents of various theories believe either that coronavirus is a global sham; or just a “flu”; or not as deadly as claimed; or a dangerous virus cultured in a lab, designed to kill “proles”; or any combination of the above. Similarly, they may state that 5G mobile phone coverage is a health risk on its own; or that it is the source of the virus; or that it will be used, through the subsequent race to find a vaccine, to control individuals.

The misinformation pandemic is designed to persuade more and more people of the “real truth” and, for some actors, to further destabilise political and democratic institutions around the Western world.

Smith says this is one of two focus points for far-right groups who spy opportunity in the pandemic.

She says one group is “encouraging ‘direct action’ to spread the virus. Some say if you get the virus it is a ‘duty’ to spread it to target groups by coughing on them.”

Others, meanwhile, are “amplifying conspiracy theories – lots of them – in order to encourage chaos and accelerate the downfall of liberal democracy”.

Transmission functions, then, much like the pathogen itself. When the messaging genome is cracked in just the right way, the mistruths can replicate and spread. There may well be mutations. Corrections or new data are dismissed as part of the cover-up. The mantra is: whatever works.

As all this is happening, the world’s largest social media platform, Facebook, has stood down thousands of its content moderators and allowed its algorithms to take charge.

 

These convenient fractures are not new.

When the Covid-19 conspiracy theories began propagating with speed, long-time climate communications specialist and writer Ketan Joshi joined a chorus of understanding with others in the field.

“Climate scientists on social media have been looking at everything that has been happening and just sort of sadly shaking their heads,” he says.

“They’ve been going up to epidemiologists and saying, ‘We know, yeah: we’ve been there.’”

During more than a decade of fervent anti-science Astroturfing from oil and gas companies on the matter of climate change, aided and abetted by vociferous support from influential political leaders and sections of the mainstream media, the seeds were sown for later, even more consequential distrust of the system.

Take just one example.

A little more than a year after he became prime minister, Tony Abbott’s Coalition government began a parliamentary inquiry into wind turbines; among other issues, it would assess “the impact of wind turbines on human health”. A wind farm commissioner was appointed, although no evidence has been given for the conspiracy that says turbines cause disease. Instead, the commissioner’s term was extended until next year.

If one goes back far enough – to 1995, as it happens – there is news footage of then MP Tony Abbott telling concerned parents at a protest over a Telstra mobile base tower that the government would “change the rules to take away the exemptions and the immunities which Telstra currently enjoys to put these things virtually where it likes”.

Joshi says there are striking similarities between the epidemic of concerns about “wind turbine syndrome” and the new panic about 5G towers. He is writing a book on the topic.

“I have a big chunk in there on wind farms and health fears, and when I saw a lot of the 5G stuff, so much is just so familiar to me,” he says.

“Part of the reason behind this is control. People don’t like to have an absence of control over the things that are around them. The other element there is that people specifically don’t like invisible stuff.

“It’s the core feature behind so many different things that really dominate. Combine that with a pandemic where the overriding emotion that people are feeling is terror and uncertainty and anxiety … Sometimes it is just nice to have an enemy.”

While the single largest contributor to conspiracies in the modern age is the ease with which they can be promulgated through social media – a problem Facebook is encountering with closed discussion groups – Joshi says there are also issues with mainstream media coverage.

As climate change writer John Cook noted, there is a “quantum theory of climate denial” where all possible positions can be enjoyed by a conspiracist at once. The same goes for their often-vitriolic rebuke of journalism.

“I think that what happens there, particularly with the mainstream media, all of the information that confirms [a conspiracy] view is snaffled up and kept and all of the information that contradicts that view is snaffled up and kept,” Joshi says.

“And they are both held at precisely the same time with no concern about their conflicting.”

 

La Trobe University social psychologist Dr Mathew Marques, who studies conspiracy theory mindsets, says they are far more common than people might believe.

“So what you often get here is a particular target, whether it is in Covid-China or there is some other group to blame,” he says.

“It is usually a clear target where groups who want certainty around an issue … the idea of a conspiracy narrative and having an outward target, or having an untrustworthy government group who are hiding secrets from you, does give you someone to blame.”

Media outlets need not give voice to full-throated conspiracy theories for a dedicated adherent to pick up clues. Some groups, such as QAnon, are almost pathologically addicted to parsing media reports and political speech for confirmation of their existing thinking.

They are active in Australia, too.

An apparently high-ranking Australian QAnon influencer, BurnedSpy – a family friend of the prime minister’s, whose wife is in a paid position in Scott Morrison’s office – has been stoking the fires of an “invisible war” on his Twitter account.

“To be clear, there is no actual army attacking us,” he tweeted this week.

“We are in an information war. This is because evil doesn’t want us to see the extent of their ‘influence’ over society.

“Influence = control. This enemy infiltration happened long ago, we just became aware of it!”

His coronavirus ad lib has ranged from posting crank theories about Bill Gates to support for vaccine objectors in the NRL.

The broadscale erosion of trust in public institutions – especially in politics and journalism, but also in the halls of academia – has only ripened the budding fruit of division.

What has changed now, most notably, is the fracturing of the media landscape and the ascension of a president in the United States praised by conservative commentators and far-right groups alike for allegedly upending the supposed cabal of elites.

“There is some research to suggest that narcissism is related to conspiracy beliefs as well and, you know, you have this example in the US of their current sitting president, who is perhaps one of the biggest mouthpieces for conspiracy narratives from vaccinations to Covid-19 stuff, birther conspiracies,” Marques says.

“For some people it is about, you know, having this special knowledge and feeling like they do have that information, and for other people it might just be to belong to a group.”

While these rifts happen globally, they are fomented in suburbs and high-rises and within families.

Paula Lucá Critelli tells The Saturday Paper that of the eight siblings in her family, two are conspiracy theorists while the rest are constantly trying to debunk them.

“When [my brother] sends me something such as that [fake] Obama video, I find the facts and present them to him,” she says.

“Most of the time he will accept it; however, there is always a ‘but’. It’s not easy but I just keep it lighthearted. Rather than get into an argument, I gently remind him to look further.

“It’s consuming these people.”

Critelli says the coronavirus has become a vehicle for entrenching “existing beliefs” and trust issues. She has joined a conspiracy group on Facebook in an attempt to fact-check the claims, but has been overwhelmed.

“There are too many contradictions in their thought patterns,” she says. “5G causes coronavirus but at the same time they don’t believe coronavirus is real. New world order, tracking via microchip and depopulation via vaccine are the other main beliefs.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2020 as "How Covid-19 energised conspiracy theorists".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Rick Morton
is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

Our journalism is founded on trust and independence

Register your email for free access or log in if you already subscribe

      Keep Reading                 Subscribe