Consider these six prevalent conspiracy theories: old and new …
1. The Illuminati are the secret rulers of the world: The belief that the world is run by this 18th-century Bavarian secret society was originally spread as a prank by a group of political parodists in the letters page of Playboy in the 1960s. They didn’t count on the credulous nature of some readers. Now, for many conspiracy theorists, most of mankind’s troubles can be laid at their door.
2. The 9/11 attacks were an inside job: Conspiracy theories have existed for thousands of years, but there was a proliferation of them after the shocking attack, when knowledge gaps led some to propose evidence-less claims that the attack was either known about by the US government in advance or planned by the US government itself.
3. Vaccine objectors: The anti-vaccine movement predates Covid-19 but has grown hugely in the past year. In general, "anti-vaxxers" believe that instead of preventing the spread of deadly infectious diseases, vaccines make people ill and that this has been covered up by governments and large pharmaceutical companies. This belief was enflamed by a now thoroughly debunked paper by Andrew Wakefield (since struck off) that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. Some believe the new Covid-19 vaccines are an attempt by Bill Gates to microchip humanity.
4. Covid-19 is a cover-up: Theories include: that the virus isn’t real; that the illness is caused by radiation from 5G towers; that it was created in a Chinese lab as a bioweapon. Many also believe Covid vaccines are harmful and/or were designed to restructure our DNA. Some hedge their bets and believe some combination of all of the above. There is no evidence for any of these beliefs.
5. QAnon: The QAnon conspiracy theory is all based on the cryptic posts of an anonymous internet poster (probably more than one poster) who claimed to be a high-level US government official. Starting in 2017, “Q” suggested that a group of high-ranking US politicians, officials and Hollywood celebrities were Satan-worshipping, paedophilic cannibals plotting against Donald Trump. Q predicted Trump would foil their machinations in an event called “the storm”. Many of the Capitol rioters believe in the QAnon conspiracy.
6. The world is flat: Once people fall down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, everything is connected and anything is possible. This includes, for some, the theory that Earth is secretly flat. This conspiracy theory might seem harmless, but it indicates a detachment from verifiable reality that can lead someone to believe anything.
In late 2010 I went to a pub in Drogheda to listen to the late UK conspiracy theorist Ian R Crane talk to 75 people about how the US government orchestrated 9/11 at the behest of a greater plan to microchip the world population and create a one-world government. The support act was Jim Corr, a musician turned conspiracy theorist. I was reporting for the Sunday Tribune, and I was less interested in Corr and Crane than in the people who had come to see them.
I was concerned with this because I knew someone who had recently gone from believing 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government to believing that the fluoridation of water and the trails from jet planes were being used to pacify the population.
Conspiracy theorists, I learned, tend to think all things are interconnected and nothing is down to chance. One conspiracy inevitably leads to another, and ultimately ends with a belief that everything is orchestrated by a shadowy cabal involving the Illuminati, or lizard people or, frequently, if they are anti-Semitic, “the Jews”.
Interviewing the people at the talk in the Drogheda pub I was struck by a few things. First, they were surprisingly happy to talk to a journalist from the mainstream media despite the fact I was going to publish information they believed other people were killed for knowing. They didn’t seem terrified, as you might expect, but instead seemed rather delighted with themselves, excited and entertained by their secret knowledge.
They also had a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance. On stage Ian R Crane suggested that the Irish government didn’t know about the Illuminati’s terrible plans, then later suggested the Irish government was completely embroiled in this vast conspiracy. Nobody seemed remotely fazed by the contradiction.
It occurred to me then that what conspiracy theorists really believed in was an emotional truth about an evil other that wasn’t affected much by something as messy as specific facts. (Karl Popper, for the record, has said that if there aren’t conditions in which your belief can be “falsified”, ie proven wrong, then it’s not a reasonable belief.)
It was also clear that none of these people had any plans to do anything about these things they thought they knew. They were happy to argue with their friends and go on to specialised message boards. They scoffed at the very notion of active protest.
It’s this last bit that has really changed. Since 2010 we have had an American president who endorsed conspiracy theories in public, and believers in the QAnon conspiracy – about a cabal of paedophilic elites that were fomenting a new world order – stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC to try to overturn an election.
Here in Ireland over the past year people who believe the Covid-19 pandemic is some sort of conspiracy have regularly taken to the streets.
After what happened in Washington, the social networking platforms – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – began to intervene, although conspiracy theorists still persist on all those platforms. This means there are frequent migrations of extremists to new platforms: the YouTube-styled video site Bitchute or the Twitter-aping Gab and, most frequently of late, the encrypted messaging service Telegram.
Aoife Gallagher monitors disinformation for the UK based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, and watches extremist groups on such platforms every day.
“I try to figure out how to stop these extremist movements sucking people in and radicalising them,” Gallagher says. “We had a list of, I think it was over 40 [Irish- based] groups last week.”
The biggest, she says, has about 18,000 followers. “It’s very hard to get a grasp on how big this entire movement is.”
Gallagher first started to see such activity here during the referendum on the Eighth Amendment. At the time some, US conspiratorial tactics were creeping in to the country. At this time, conspiratorial thinking was dominated by a handful of right-wing “influencer types” including Gemma O’Doherty and, more recently, ex-squaddie Rowan Croft.
In the past few years, she says, there have been concerted attempts by the far- right to organise people around specific local issues.
'They're constantly reassuring themselves about their belief systems, and that's extremely powerful'
“They set up local Facebook groups in towns where direct provision centres were planned. And they would gather members into those groups, local members, and they would pretty much just pepper the groups in disinformation and hate about migrants ... And there was a kind of a bubbling anti-5G community in Ireland over the past couple years.” This refers to people who believe 5G masts cause illness.
“There were anti-vax communities…There were far-right influencer types that were pushing QAnon early on. And then when the pandemic struck they all came together under this one Covid narrative.”
Conspiracy theories have always existed, says Gallagher. “The big thing that has changed is the development of online communities. They’re constantly reassuring themselves about their belief systems, and that’s extremely powerful, especially now they’ve lost a sense of community [elsewhere].
“So you can find this nice community online that you can speak to and they will tell you that you’re right… Years ago you would have to visit a very precise bookshop in a very precise city to find that.”
Abbie Richards is an American climate-change researcher who has become something of an anti-disinformation campaigner on Twitter and TikTok. She recently produced a graph explaining different conspiracy theories in a pyramid, from the real to the most malign.
The first section at the bottom includes actual conspiracies that have been proven true (such as the CIA experiments with drugs known as MKUltra); the next, through the “speculation line”, features areas where there are gaps in public knowledge (such as the death of Jeffrey Epstein). The next section she classes as “unequivocally false but mostly harmless”, including beliefs in the Loch Ness monster and that Elvis is alive.
The next section is “science denial”, which Richards explains as being “dangerous to yourself and others”. It includes a belief that global warming is a hoax, that chemicals are dispersed to placate the population, and that Covid-19 is made in a lab.
Her final section, through “the anti-Semitic point of no return”, features conspiracy theories that can generally be summed up as a belief that the world is ruled by malign entities that are often styled as “the deep state” or the “illuminati” but which are often coded terms for Jewish people.
Richards’s pyramid has gone viral online because it is timely. The pandemic, she says, has provided particularly fertile ground for conspiracy theories. “There was already an information vacuum where we didn’t know that much about the virus yet. Bad information will always be better than no information, so people kept choosing to share sh**ty information before we understood anything.”
Richards says she is often struck by the fact that some of the conspiracy theorists she engages with have similar fears about the world to her own but have come to very different conclusions about their causes. “What I will notice repeatedly is that we have very similar concerns about the fundamental problems.”
Gallagher also thinks conspiracy theories are an extreme reaction to very real concerns people have. Governments have “shown so much ineptitude over the past year. I don’t think that anyone would deny that there are issues with the media ... And I think there’s something that’s a bit genuinely worrying there as well about the ethical issues around having a vaccine passport.”
Ultimately, a belief that a cabal of all-powerful elites can control everything is a more comforting solution to these problems than a messy narrative involving bureaucratic ineptitude, existential chaos and a complex system of class bias.
“People really have very little control over a lot of aspects of their lives at the moment and that’s very debilitating,” says Gallagher. “There is a comfort in knowing that there is someone controlling the world, even if those forces controlling the words are inherently evil to you. It’s a massive aspect of why conspiracy theories are so powerful, especially in times of strife.
“And if you believe in one conspiracy theory, it’s a lot easier to believe in more than one ... If you fall into a Covid conspiracy theory a couple of weeks later you could believe in QAnon because it’s the same kind of idea.”
This is because, Richards explains, once you have disregarded mainstream sources there is a tendency to put all your trust in the alternative ones you’ve found instead. Consumers of conspiracy theories become strangely credulous. “There was a study that [if you believed] Princess Di was murdered you are also more likely to believe that she’s alive,” she tells me.
On anti-lockdown sites, she notes, some people seem to believe the pandemic is simultaneously not real, made in a lab, and more contagious than we’re being told. Indeed, one video I watched claimed that initially the virus wasn’t real but, in order to keep up the pretence, the elites went on to create a real virus in a lab late last year.
If you spend time looking at anti-lockdown threads on Telegram or Facebook, you can see how people could easily slide from a simple belief that the lockdown is too extreme, to a belief that the pandemic was faked to sell pharmaceuticals, to a belief that the disease itself was designed in a lab so that multinationals could tinker with our DNA via a fake vaccine.
In one anti-lockdown Telegram thread I’m looking at as I write, all of these beliefs and more are present. Alongside the promotion of pressure campaigns and demonstrations, there are videos and articles proposing to be about people who have died or become very ill as a result of taking the vaccine.
There are memes about scientists taking bribes; there are links to a video about discredited anti-vaccine scientist Andrew Wakefield; there's a video from a young Irish man advocating fascism (though he calls it "third position politics"); there's a link to a forum about self-sufficiency, there's a video of a man smashing his television as a "cure for Covid"; there are links to a chat featuring members of the Eurosceptic Irish Freedom Party; there's a video about how Covid-19 swabs cause cancer; there's a video of veteran conspiracy theorist David Icke discussing vaccinations as a precursor to a "cull" of the population; and there's an allegation that an international pro-vaccine figure is a paedophile.
There are slippery slopes here to all manner of extremist beliefs. The last item mentioned, for example, is rooted in the QAnon conspiracy theory about how the Clintons and other US “elites” have been running a paedophile ring. Last summer, when QAnon-related content was banned from many of the social media sites, the same people launched a less controversial “save the children” campaign.
"It was very successful in spreading into wellness communities," says Gallagher. "The narrative had changed from Hillary Clinton eating children to advocating keeping children safe."
The more isolated people are from each other and the more they leave behind a shared media culture, the more likely they are to start subscribing to such things. There’s also a tendency for those people to further isolate themselves from anyone who challenges them.
“I often see posts [that say], ‘oh, my mother won’t talk to me anymore,’ and you see all the replies, ‘Just go leave her behind. She’s not awake’,” says Gallagher. “I will always tell people to try and keep the lines of communication open. And if that means that you don’t talk about the conspiracy theories at all [that’s okay].
“In order to de-radicalise people it really has to be a one-on-one kind of a thing. It’s not like you can send out some kind of a message through the media that’s going to kind of pull everyone back. It has to come from people they trust.”
Mockery is tempting, says Richards, but it doesn’t work. “There’s never a situation in which mocking them brings them any closer to the reality.”
“Saying ‘oh my God, they’re absolutely crazy. They’re stupid and they’re loonies’ is just not at all beneficial to how we solve this because you’re just going to push people away further like that. So I think there has to be an understanding that the people out in the streets [are] actually your friends and family. They have gone through a hell of a year, like everyone has. They’re reaching the end of their tether.”
Gallagher believes arguments with conspiracy theorists can often be pointless but that appeals to critical thinking can sometimes be helpful.
Both Gallagher and Richards think that media literacy needs to be taught more widely in order to help people weigh up the worth of information they encounter
“Conspiracy theorists often think that they have a higher level of critical thinking than the average person does. But what you see in these groups is that their critical thinking is just a rejection of anything that is termed ‘mainstream’. And that’s not critical thinking.
“So if someone says, ‘oh, I saw this video that says the vaccines are actually going to kill you’, [then ask], ‘well, who’s in the video and what’s their agenda?’ Get them to think about the information that they’re consuming.”
Ultimately, both Gallagher and Richards think that media literacy needs to be taught more widely in order to help people weigh up the worth of information they encounter wherever they encounter it. But they also both think that the social media giants need to be regulated and made accountable.
“There’s a big disconnect there between the online world and the offline world at the moment,” says Gallagher. “And we’re living more online all the time. So something needs to be done to regulate the platforms in the same way that any other industry is regulated. Social media companies are the biggest companies in the world at the moment and they’re so powerful.”
She mention the recent Facebook decision to cut Australian newsfeeds in reaction to a new law that would force them to pay news producers. “In the middle of a pandemic. That’s scary.”
In the meantime, those of our family and friends who frequent anti-lockdown discussions on social media platforms are in danger of becoming increasingly detached from our shared reality.
Gallagher fears that the ultimate beneficiaries will be opportunistic reactionary populists who are already using the tactics and language of the American far right.
“They call anything that goes against their kind of agenda a ‘false flag’ or they pin it on ‘antifa’….They’re actively sweeping in where typical anti-establishment parties like Sinn Féin normally would have sat.
“My fear would be that whenever we have our next election we’re going to see the people that have kind of built up a little bit of a name for themselves over the past year as members of far-right parties get votes.”