Prolonged uncertainty is painful. Among the many hardships suffered by those stuck in refugee detention centres, one of the most tortuous is the indefinite nature of their situation. They have no control over their lives and no idea when their situation may change. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a wave of that kind of uncertainty crashing down among those of us who previously lived in what seemed like a well-ordered world. Because somehow, miraculously, despite unprecedented wild-fires, climate change and a low-key world-war-by-proxy, for most of us life has been continuing with a predictable rhythm. Suddenly, out of nowhere, emerges a virus and billions of us are affected in areas as diverse as our health and well-being, job security and working arrangements, family relationships and connections with loved ones, social life and entertainment, and in many cases our ability to simply move about. Anxiety and stress are natural human responses to such upheaval, as is a desire to find meaning and understanding.
It is this desire for meaning and understanding that I believe is behind the growth of conspiracy theories that has accompanied the pandemic. My social media feed has become host to a sudden flurry of such ideas, as well as rampant misinformation often shared by friends who I know as holding holistic, metaphysically informed and generally deeply caring views. In what seems like a complete transformation of their usual posts, these same people are now sharing videos of strident individuals who spread ideas and opinions that range from the outrageous to the outright sinister. These videos are shared and re-shared, leading to threads that become echo-chambers of self-verification. Posts are often accompanied by emotive appeals to share this important “information” so we can break free from the tyranny that is befalling us under the guise of the pandemic. Few posters completely dismiss the existence of a disease associated with the coronavirus, though some do. But many seem of the view that the social distancing measures are excessive and represent a covert power grab by the authorities under the guise of an exaggerated and even fabricated crisis, rather than a genuine public health response. I do not think it is helpful to simply dismiss the people in the videos and those who share them as “conspiracy nuts”, and in fact am deeply troubled by the trend. At a time where political polarisation already seemed at an all-time high, I worry that the scars of this coronavirus will be social rather than immunological, leading to ever deeper rifts between people and heightened potential for violence.
So this concern prompted me to try and understand why there are such fertile soils for these ideas and it turns out, their appeal is actually quite easy to understand. But before I explore that, here are some of the key points I have seen circulating. My summary is by necessity only a snapshot. The conspiracy theory rabbit holes are deep. For every theory that is met by a reasonable explanation, a new twist emerges to add a more conspiratorial plot, making these burrows almost interminable. A further complication is that no individual source necessarily provides all the pieces, nor are different pundits sharing exactly the same information or viewpoint. Rather, different commentators provide partially overlapping narratives, with variations that can always be interpreted as reflecting the deviousness of the conspiring forces. A coherent narrative becomes unnecessary when the “enemy” is an all-powerful, nebulous entity that can seemingly take control of any government, business or media entity.
What conspiracy theorists say
There are many conspiracy narratives. Here I will focus primarily on the English proponent of these ideas David Icke. By way of contrast I will briefly start with the American scientist, engineer, entrepreneur and budding politician Dr Shiva Ayyadurai (Dr Shiva). In the two interviews I watched he seemed a vocal supporter of President Trump, which of course immediately raises the question of whether his commentary is politically motivated. Some of the highlights from his videos include the following claims:
David Icke is without a doubt the most long-standing voice among the current proponents of conspiracy theories, having been a professional conspiracy theorist for almost three decades. David Icke’s two interviews on the coronavirus on the online London Real show have been viewed millions of times. Some commentators like to write David Icke off, because he sometimes refers to an alien lizard race as the ultimate guiding force behind global conspiracies. For many that is enough to label him crazy.
But he is actually very sophisticated at constructing emotionally charged narratives that appeal to the “common man” as well as to spiritually inclined people. He draws heavily on factoids familiar from conservative and right-wing media that consequently appear truthful to consumers of such media, and on anti-science and anti-establishment rhetoric that appeals to those who already question formal scientific, political and media institutions. As such he appeals to a remarkably broad demographic.
For example, in one of his interviews he spoken passionately about how little the authorities care about the elderly, as evidenced by poor pension schemes, thus raising questions about how an economic shut down could possibly be motivated by care for that demographic (emotional appeal), suggested in the same breath that the WHO is headed by a Marxist and was set up by the Rockefellers and is thus not a trustworthy organisation (fitting in with factoids used by right wing media to discredit that organisation), and suggested that the pandemic is an elaborate scheme to have everybody vaccinated (fitting in with the fears of vaccination by many of the so-called spiritual left). As a professional conspiracy theorist he makes a living from combining valid social criticisms with unsubstantiated ideas that have an emotional appeal to an ever-growing audience.
In his London Real interviews, David Icke applies what I’d call a scatter gun approach to ideas, covering so many angles that many people would be able to relate to at least some of them. The presence of internal inconsistencies becomes irrelevant at that stage. Key points included:
Even though some of his assertions seem to rest on the hypothesis that independent doctors and nurses are manipulating test results and statistics, David Icke absolves frontline workers with the explanation that they are forced to do things by cronies of the cult who hold positions of authority and impose systems that further the cult’s agenda. The overarching message from Icke in his interviews, and also his extensive writing, is that all global events are manipulated by this cult who want to enslave and control all of humanity and are moving in that direction in small but deliberate steps (he calls this “the totalitarian tip-toe”).
All events involving global action, whether it is regarding climate change, environmental protection more generally, alleviation of poverty, economic cooperation, or in this case tackling a global infectious disease, lend themselves to inclusion in this narrative. Because any global action can be interpreted as a step towards a one world government led by sinister forces. Consequently international bodies such as the UN, the WTO or the WHO, as well as major multinational corporations, especially the tech giants, all become essential players in David Icke’s conspiracy narratives.
In the midst of identifying fearful threats and plots against our well-being, both Icke and Dr Shiva intersperse their accounts with more positive suggestions about boosting the immune system through healthy eating habits, exercise and exposure to sunlight. And in David Icke’s case he briefly digresses into spiritual views about the immortal and powerful nature of our consciousness. But even these more uplifting observations lead to further evidence for the sinister intentions of the “cult”. Because in many places people’s movement is limited so they have less access to fresh air and sunlight, which “proves” that the authorities do not have people’s best interests at heart and are in fact trying to make us sick to then further justify the lockdown.
There are many obvious logical flaws and internal inconsistencies in these ideas. So why do they seem to have such a wide appeal, seemingly across the full political, social, religious and educational spectrum?
The appeal of conspiracy theories
There are good reasons for the appeal of these ideas, but I think one fundamental driver is the deep, deep uncertainty of our current situation. None of us have lived through something quite like this before, and those of us who usually enjoy privileged status in affluent, democratic countries have not experienced having our freedom of movement and association curbed and policed (for people of colour in many parts of the world that is not quite so unfamiliar). And right now, very few leaders across the global community have provided a roadmap by which we can imagine our way out of the current situation. That these uncharted waters should have been caused by a whim of nature can be a hard pill to swallow. Surely there must be a better reason.
This is where conspiracy theories step in. They provide clear explanations for what is happening, identify an enemy and give us the sense that there is structure and order. Whether it is a bio-weapon or a hoax, these explanations seem more appealing to many than the fact that it is a virus caused by certain forms of human-animal interactions. We may not like it, in fact what is happening is something to be resisted, but at least it is clear and unambiguous.
Conspiracy theories reaffirm that there is order in the world, things are not happening at random, life is not creating suffering capriciously and if we only look deeply enough we too can know the truth. As such, they offer a similar certainty to religion, but instead of divine order (whether loving or wrathful), the order for the conspiracy believers is created by power hungry individuals with multi-generational master plans for the control of humanity.
Beyond the certainty and emotional comfort they offer, conspiracy theories (which could be more aptly called “conspiracy beliefs”) are also appealing because they identify and highlight very genuine social issues that run through every aspect of most nation states, regardless whether autocracy or democracy. These include corruption and deceit at every level of the political system, biased or downright deceitful media reporting, inequality in the application of the law depending on social standing, according greater value to corporate profit than human well-being, and ever increasing automation and sophistication of levels of control (CCTV, facial recognition, biometric recognition, voice recognition and so on). Anybody who has seen the social credit system being deployed in China would rightly fear similar systems creeping into their country. So as well as a desire for certainty, the following seem to be some of the big hooks that draw people into the web of conspiracy narratives.
There is widespread mistrust of government, to the point that jokes about the self-interest and corruption of politicians are normalised. This is unsurprising as lies and deceit from politicians are common. One of the most egregious global examples were the lies of the senior leaders of the US and UK about the existence of weapons of mass destruction, used to justify the invasion of Iraq. We now know that everybody knew that such weapons did not exist, but even though that has been established nobody ever apologised for, formally admitted or made amends for taking large parts of the world to war over lies.
Bill Clinton’s infamous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” is a more mundane example that made global headlines. In Australian politics we had the so-called “children over-board” affair, where the Prime Minister at the time, John Howard, portrayed asylum seekers fleeing a sinking ship as heartless monsters throwing their kids over-board to save their own lives. This was used to stoke up community fear of refugees and helped the Conservative party win the next election on a “tough on boat arrivals” policy. The following election a similar tactic was deployed, unsuccessfully, when a senior government bureaucrat assumed the false identity of a remote community worker and made false and exaggerated claims about child sexual abuse in remote indigenous communities. This led to a military style intervention in many such communities and took up significant air-time, again just prior to an election.
Only a little further back in history, British and US governments used their own soldiers as guinea pigs during nuclear tests in Australia and the Pacific. There could be endless more examples. From mundane and petty lies about inappropriate use of travel allowances, to decisions made in favour of companies that belong to the mates or family members of politicians, to lies that have taken entire countries to war or led to the exploitation of poorer countries in ways voters would not approve of if they knew the truth.
Politicians have a major truth and trust deficit, which was amplified by contradictory and erratic communications by many world leaders when the pandemic first emerged. They were of course just as taken aback by the situation as anybody else, but because of the existing deficit, genuine mistakes are also met with mistrust. There is a reason why New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has such a big global following: there is something almost miraculous about a warm, genuine, compassionate politician.
The media lies
Long before Donald Trump popularised the term “fake news” many of us already knew that one has to consume the “news” with careful discernment. Often the lies told by politicians are simply amplified by the media. And many media outlets have their own political motivations and biases.
In the mid ’90s, I attended a large demonstration in London. Police actively incited violence by arbitrarily cutting through the peaceful march and hemming in part of the protesters. The following day the press reported the event as a violent riot. A mundane, everyday example of collaboration between the media and authorities to manipulate the public narrative of events. Members of minority and politically active groups are very familiar with this dynamic. Many middle-class white people are experiencing police overreach and a lack of media reporting about this during this pandemic for the first time.
There is good investigative journalism, and journalists can hold governments and corporations to account. But there is also a significant amount of partisan media coverage pushing particular agendas, and we all know it. So the media also have a major truth and trust deficit, and since running for office Donald Trump has managed to amplify that to such a degree that a significant proportion of people across the globe no longer feel they can trust any information.
Corporations value profit over well-being
When I was growing up in the 1970s it was quite common to see people who had been damaged in uterus by a drug known as Thalidomide. This left a lasting impression on me and a deep-seated although largely subconscious mistrust of prescription drugs. I am not aware of other cases of that severity, but there are countless anecdotal accounts of people having adverse reactions to medication. Most controversial among those are accounts of children dying or developing chronic health issues after vaccination. It only takes a handful such accounts among the hundreds of millions of children vaccinated across the globe, to instil fear and mistrust among an ever-growing number of people, and as a parent I can very much relate to that fear.
Pharmaceutical companies also highlight some of the tensions within the capitalist system. Profit drive and competition may spur innovation and creativity, but what are the ramifications of commodifying human health? In a system that values profit as the highest accomplishment, why would one promote a life-style that reduces people’s dependence on drugs for their health? If companies are designed to make money by selling drugs, is it not in their best interest to ensure people take as many of their products as possible?
Being able to produce a vaccine that is mandatory and applied to every citizen on this planet would surely be the business jackpot for any drug company. This is simple business logic but raises complex ethical issues that are largely unresolved and thus function as a kind of slow release fertiliser to the growth of conspiracy theories surrounding the pharmaceutical industry.
These ethical issues of pharmaceutical companies are embedded in the deeper ethical shortcoming of the capitalist economy. It is not difficult to interpret this economy as a manipulative system that first indoctrinates the young into diets of fast food, sugar and alcohol (and until quite recently cigarettes) and then the old into the consumption of pharmaceuticals that would have been unnecessary if they had eaten healthy food to begin with. It is a system that in its most rampant form makes just about anything a commodity, including essentials such as water and our health.
We all know, yet have become comfortably numb to the fact, that we are lied to on a daily basis via advertising about the benefits of products. We have seen again and again that even harmful deceit goes unpenalized. Whether it is tobacco companies denying the harm of smoking, large banks manipulating accounts, overcharging customers and lending money to those who cannot afford repayments, big businesses underpaying staff, mining companies disregarding their environmental and social obligations, or Facebook selling user data, companies appear to get away with profit driven schemes that harm people. In fact they often continue to thrive while the lives of individuals are ruined.
When these social, economic and political realities are seen as part of a large system, is it surprising that there is an openness among millions to see conspiracy theories? When faced with a global crisis at a scale none of us have ever experienced, and governments suddenly take drastic actions that (temporarily) inhibit our freedom in unprecedented ways, is it surprising that many have a need for a more sophisticated reason than simply a desire by the government to keep the population safe? After all, those same governments already have a trust deficit and there is overwhelming evidence that keeping the population safe is not always their priority. Add to this poor implementation of and over-policing of lockdown restrictions, a sudden push for tracing apps and surveillance technology “in case we become sick”, and talk of compulsory vaccination and many people’s worst dystopian fantasies are activated.
We do not need conspiracy theories
So clearly, conspiracy beliefs are not as outlandish as they may seem if we do not consider the bigger social context in which they arise. As long as corruption, self-interest, public manipulation and unbridled ambitions for power are part of our political and economic reality, we will have conspiracy beliefs.
Because people are indeed scheming to gain more power, politicians do support their mates or funders in big business, and businesses try to convince people to buy things they do not need and that are no good for them. But to attribute all of this to a grand conspiracy not only seems to vastly overestimate the human potential for global project management. It also ignores that we do not need a unifying conspiracy theory to explain all this scheming and manipulation.
Such a theory, in which the machinations of an elite few drive everything, is understandably appealing. It gives us comforting clarity, absolves us from responsibility and shelters us from human incompetence. Because if it is not the Rockefellers, or other masterminds manipulating the system, but simply many competing, power hungry, manipulative, unethical, self-centred and greedy individuals hustling for control, it paints a much murkier picture of humanity. It forces us to confront that we too have those traits within us.
All the pathological behaviours that one may want to attribute to conspiratorial manipulation, seem much more readily explained as representing the shadow sides of the industrial capitalist economic system and our own psychology, especially our psychological and spiritual disconnection from each other and from nature. Our core social systems of capitalism and materialism pretty much explain everything. Structural inequality and manipulation of people (“consumers”) are part of the business model by which most countries are run. The two-party political system has long favoured the status quo in which big business calls the shots, especially in the English-speaking world. The medical approach is largely responsive rather than preventative and holistic.
The main medical responses to the pandemic, as exemplified by Bill Gates’s push for a vaccine, are a case in point. Aiming for a vaccine for everyone is fully in accordance with the dominant medical model. Similarly, science does not identify any dangers of EMF or 5G. So why should that technology not be rolled out? None of these things are conspiracies, other than the one that has been burdening humanity for as long as recorded history, i.e. the conspiracy of forgetfulness of our connection to the planet and each other.
From a model of “power over” the planet and each other, we will naturally arrive at the kind of scenarios David Icke is lamenting. Scenarios where we undervalue human life, freedom and creativity and overvalue centralised control and power as the more effective system. The fact that China is at the leading edge of societies built on such social control, completely undermines the Rockefellers-Gates-Israel conspiracy narrative. Instead, what it reminds us of is that this drive for power and control has been part of the human psyche since the beginning of nation states. Roman emperors had it, as did medieval kings and religious authorities, 18th century lords and today the owners of giant tech companies, and banks as well as party leaders and senior bureaucrats of all political persuasions.
I actually have some admiration for David Icke’s dogged persistence to call out corruption and for staying true to his beliefs despite years of public ridicule. But many of his statements are damaging falsehoods pushing a deeply anti-scientific and nationalistic agenda so that in the end he acts almost like a counter-intelligence operative. He identifies serious issues but then obfuscates them again by packaging them with misinformation. He purports to be aiming for human liberation while spreading fear and distrust.
Conspiracy beliefs do not help us create just societies and claim our freedom. While they may alert us to systemic corruption, they are disempowering by placing causality in the hands of an unidentified elite (a kind of human anti-God) instead of the inherent flaws of the human psyche.
There is every reason to assume that corruption and the push for more power by those with immense wealth will continue. But the struggle against that push is not so much a fight against an external “cult” as a struggle with aspects of our own nature. It is by building our relationships, our businesses and even our political engagements on principles of authenticity, compassion, kindness, mutuality and respect for nature that we create a bedrock for a solid society. A society where conspiracy beliefs become obsolete and people can breathe out and relax into mutual trust, respect and deep inner knowledge of their creative contribution to life on this planet.
Kim McCaul is an anthropologist with a long term interest in understanding consciousness and personal transformation.
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