The past few months has seen a proliferation of memes and stories on social media linking COVID-19 to everything from 5G technology and a laboratory in Wuhan to Bill Gates and his push for global vaccinations. Even segments of the media and political figures such United States President Donald Trump have helped disseminate these theories.
Indications are that these theories have gained traction. An Essential Poll conducted in Australia in May showed 39% of those surveyed agreed COVID-19 was engineered and released from a Chinese laboratory; 13% blamed Bill Gates for the pandemic; and 12% believed the 5G wireless network was being used to spread the coronavirus. A similar survey in Canada found 46% of those polled believe at least one key COVID-19 myth.
Such theories have become so widespread that authorities have been forced to publicly respond and refute them, while some people have sought to take matters into their own hands, attacking 5G towers in various countries, including Australia.
The rise of conspiracy theories is generally blamed on ignorance or deliberate misinformation campaigns seeking to create distrust in liberal institutions such as the government, media or academia. The solution therefore tends to be pleas for people to “listen to the experts” or for politicians and the media to put aside politics and focus on “honest leadership”.
But this generally only has the effect of further fuelling belief in these theories, because it misunderstands the root cause underpinning the rise of conspiracy theories.
Into the mainstream
Conspiracy theories have existed for centuries, even if their influence has generally been limited to the fringes of society. Since the turn of the century, however, conspiracy theories have slowly permeated into the mainstream. Today, significant minorities believe theories such as the September 11 terror attack was an “inside job” or Russian bots won the election for Trump.
Several conspiracy theories currently in vogue are themselves not new. But the COVID-19 pandemic has served to expand the audience for these theories, while acting as a grand unifier for these differing theories.
Right across the political spectrum, people have used their own conspiratorial lens to understand the pandemic. This has even led to groups with seemingly opposing political views — for example, far-right militias that oppose “big government” lockdowns and hippies who reject Big Pharma’s vaccination push — uniting in opposition to a supposed “plandemic”.
What most of these conspiracy theories have in common is suspicion, if not outright hostility, towards “the establishment” or “elites”. Stories about vaccines, 5G technology or “New World Order plandemics” generally involve the belief that an evil, hidden force is controlling events.
What helps these theories gain traction is that they often contain a kernel of truth, though in an extremely distorted form. For example, believing vaccines are a plot to microchip the population is absurd, but there are many legitimate reasons to distrust pharmaceutical companies that seek to profit from deadly health crises and misery.
The same is true of scepticism towards the expansion of technology or state powers, which has tended to be used to assault people’s privacy and civil liberties. And the fear that elites could be behind a “plandemic” only makes sense when one considers how governments and corporations have consistently sought to convert crises into opportunities to push their anti-people agenda.
While social media and Trump have played a role in popularising such theories, their recent dramatic rise is not due to well-funded campaigns to undermine the established order. Rather, the reverse is true: the appeal of such theories is explained by all-time high rates of disillusionment with existing institutions and the hollowing out or disintegration of traditional political models for interpreting the world (whether of the conservative right or social democratic or communist left variety).
That is, conspiracy theories reflect, rather than create, an existing deep-seated distrust in the existing state of affairs. When combined with a huge, unexpected event of global proportions — such as a pandemic — the ground is ripe for conspiracy theories to flourish.
For those seeking to make sense of this world, conspiracy theories can offer a simple narrative for understanding a complex reality around them. They not only explain what happened but, importantly, why it happened.
While premised on the ideas of unequal power relations, conspiracy theories replace real existing social forces (social classes) with tropes about individual evildoers (Bill Gates) and secret cabals (the New World Order, Globalists) or reactionary anti-Semitism (Jewish conspiracies).
In a world where so many people are socially disconnected and lack control over key aspects of their lives, a sense of certainty, and even comfort, can be obtained from the idea that the “elites” are all-powerful and the “mainstream” is either duped or comprised of “sheeple”. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that little can be done to stop these elites except “spread the truth”.
Here again, conspiracy theories reflect, rather than create, an existing sense of powerlessness borne from people’s broader disconnect from politics and the strongly held idea that social change is impossible. The rise of conspiracy theories is therefore not only explained by rising distrust but also the defeats inflicted on the working class and social movements over the past few decades.
For most people, politics is no longer seen as an arena in which to participate and take action. Instead, for some, it has become something akin to The Matrix, where reality is manipulated by elites and only those who have been “red-pilled” can see what is really happening.
It is therefore little surprise that “fact checking” or expert committees, such as the 9/11 Commission, only serve to fuel the “truthers”, who seek to double down and find new evidence of a cover-up.
Overcoming the rise of conspiracy theories will, at one level, require winning a broader hearing for a coherent, and much deeper, understanding of how society functions, that can outline the real existing social forces at play and how unequal power relations can be overturned.
Achieving this is premised on the creation of spaces for collective learning and debate that are focused on empowering each other rather than just listening to experts. Science can be a guide, but never a substitute, for determining what political action to take.
More importantly, it will necessitate the reemergence of collective mobilisations capable of overcoming the prevailing sense of powerlessness. Such struggle would not only reveal where real power in society lies but empower those involved to regain some genuine control over their lives.