The global pandemic has undoubtedly transformed the world. Across the globe, people have experienced loss: whether it be loss of work, community, normalcy, or loved ones. The fear of contracting the virus, the effects of long-term isolation and lockdowns, and the overall breakdown of information have converged to create a breeding ground for widespread feelings of instability, fear, and vulnerability. As a result, decades-old conspiracy theories have been reignited, becoming the backbone for many worldwide anti-lockdown, anti-vax, and anti-mask protests, and events such as the attempted coup on Washington, D.C. on January 6th, 2021. Polling from March found that nearly 30% of Americans believe in a COVID-19 conspiracy theory, and Media Matters’ list of 97 U.S. candidates for congressional seats in the 2020 elections who support conspiracy theorist QAnon demonstrates the importance of this global phenomenon.
As the second year of lockdown commences and anti-government suspicion continues to proliferate, it is imperative to unpack the historical and political undertones of COVID-19 conspiracy theories so that this misinformation can be combated.
Popular COVID-19 conspiracy theories propose that the pandemic, alongside the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, social distancing guidelines, and the push for nationwide mail-in voting, was all part of a coordinated plan perpetrated by the “deep state.” According to the QAnon community, the “deep state” refers to the underground network that controls the government, which in turn, controls the public through fear.
QAnon is their leader, a self-proclaimed “government security official” who posts secret information and clues about a conspiracy that Donald Trump is dismantling an underground sex-trafficking ring run by Democrats, billionaires, and Hollywood celebrities. The goal of this underground ring? To extract a chemical from children’s blood that is said to have life-extending qualities. There are parallels of this conspiracy to racist theories that circulated in the Middle Ages about Jewish people murdering Christian children to drink their blood— both theories have undertones of anti-semitism, paranoia about authority, and a secret enemy.
QAnon is also deeply entangled with the 2020 “stolen election” movement and the conspiracy that vaccinations are a plan by Bill Gates to implant chip surveillance and sterilize the population. The melting-pot of theories appeals to far-right extremists such as evangelical Christians and the Reichsburgers, who tend to be vulnerable to conspiracy theories. However, the most surprising group involved is the yoga, wellness, and spirituality community.
To understand how this unexpected demographic has become the center of conspiracy theories, we must understand the origins of New-Age Western spirituality and how Nazism foreshadowed Trumpism.
The term “conspirituality” was coined in 2011 by anthropologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas to describe a correlation between folks with New-Age (Western) alternative beliefs and susceptibility for conspiracy-like thinking. This union is based on an understanding that nefarious forces are trying to control the social and political order, and that the world is going through a “paradigm shift” in consciousness. The “awakened” ones see past the “illusions” of reality, and feel a responsibility to uncover the “truth.”
Central to this specific counter-movement is naturopathy, which is a form of alternative medicine that emphasizes the body’s natural healing powers over conventional Western medicine. This ideology typically opposes Public Health recommendations such as wearing masks and vaccinations under the guise that it infringes on their rights and the overall rejection of Western medicine. The movement typically uses the language of the pro-choice feminist movement, “my body my choice,” to assert sovereignty against the tyrannical “deep state,” “brainwashed doctors,” and “Big Pharma.” While there certainly are reasons to be critical of how the pharmaceutical industry impacts medical education, the distrust of authority results in skepticism about vaccines and the entirety of the medical industry.
Philosopher and author Jules Evans notes that there is evidence of “spiritual elitism” or narcissism that proliferates in the realm of “conspirituality.” The idea of accessing “secret truths” that others cannot see becomes grounds to view oneself as superior—”truths” that tend to be founded on conspiracies.
QAnon and spiritual influencers have used the terms “sheeple” or “normies” to refer to people who are not awake to the “truth.” This implies ignorant citizenry in “blindly” following public health recommendations to contain the virus.
What separates QAnon followers from “sheeple” is the claim that they do their own “independent research,” as Michael Ballweg, founder of the anti-lockdown group in Germany, explains: “we are people [who] represent a cross-section of society, and can think for ourselves.” Understandably, under the circumstances of COVID-19, citizens are looking for answers, stability, and media they can trust. Due to social media, the circulation of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 is more accessible than ever, and isolated individuals may be more likely to fall into a “rabbit hole” that confirms existing beliefs, views, and theories. Despite the lack of accurate sources and evidence to support these theories, conspiracy theorists equate doing their independent research with critical thinking.
Many New-Age “hippie” communities are grounded on principles of love, community, and justice, and therefore, are commonly thought of as being liberal or progressive. However, history shows that “right-wing extremism is very linked to New-Age Western spirituality.” For example, in Nazi Germany, occult beliefs largely overlapped with fascist beliefs in that they “[picked] and [chose] beliefs founded on pseudoscience in order to support their worldview.” Hitler and other Nazis used alternative medicine, practiced yoga, ate vegetarian diets, and identified with anti-vaxxing, while simultaneously authorizing experiments on prisoners in concentration camps for research.
Some members of the Nazi party were absorbed by ideals about “wholeness” and viewed themselves as spiritual elites who had a calling to heal society from the “divisions caused by rationalism, industrialism, and military defeat.” Hitler was likened to a “guru” who would “cleanse” the land of its evil, weak, or sick citizens, who were believed to be the Jewish population.
At the time, a conspiracy created and spread by Russian propagandists in a pamphlet titled “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” theorized that the Jews were planning to take over the world. The conspiracy was followed by claims that Jews kidnapped Christian children to drain their blood for a Passover meal. The Jewish population quickly became the scapegoat for many German plights and was dehumanized and stereotyped as a demonic, “invasive” species that threatened the “wholeness” of the German population. The language and ideologies of the spiritual world became infused with fascist political motifs and provided the moral justification for the eugenicist projects of Nazi Germany.
Repackaging of Anti-Semitic Conspiracy Theories
Similarly to Hitler, Trump plays a similar role in the QAnon conspiracy theory as a “saviour” in the fight between “demonic liberals” and anyone else who stands in the way of the American Dream. Jan Rathje, a conspiracy theory expert says that conspiracies claiming that COVID-19 was created by a “shadowy cabal of globalist elites” to control the masses through vaccinations and lockdowns “were simply new iterations of centuries-old myths that almost invariably scapegoated Jews as pulling the strings behind such plots.” In both contexts, there is a “blood libel” conspiracy, a breakdown of reliable information, socio-economic instability, and a secret group: in Nazi Germany, it was the Jews, and now, it is liberals. Under this ideology, liberals are responsible for the “stolen election” and are disrupters of peace after the anti-racist protests of the summer of 2020.
Further, as most of QAnon’s following tends to be from the far-right, widespread xenophobia and anti-semitism are rising. The presence of anti-semitism was undeniable at the Washington raid, as exemplified by one insurgent wearing a t-shirt that read “Camp Auschwitz.” Trump’s demonization of immigrants and minorities, his reluctance to condemn white supremacists, and his comment that neo-Nazi’s are “very fine people” are all empowering “Americans holding anti-Semitic views [to feel] emboldened to act on their hate.” QAnon has essentially re-packaged “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” theory into a modern-day conspiracy that sparks similar fears as the time of the Holocaust.
The Dangers of Re-Packaged Conspiracy Theories
While the conspiracy theories of this contemporary moment certainly appeal to extremists on both sides of the political spectrum, it is worth noting that many people who do not necessarily have extremist views are increasingly being drawn to different versions of the conspiracies. Many communities have found their way into following QAnon, or COVID-19 conspiracy theories in general, through the re-packaging of decades-old conspiracy theories using real issues and movements to elicit emotional responses.
For example, in the summer of 2020, the #SaveTheChildren campaign that was widely shared over the Internet and led to nationwide protests was an avenue to ease people into the QAnon community. Historically, the hashtag has been used by anti-child trafficking NGOs to raise awareness and create real social change. However, by rebranding what may appear as an extremist conspiracy, the function of this hashtag was to “hijack the natural concern for children and use it as a pipeline to draw people down the rabbit hole.”
To add, David Gilbert of VICE news notes that there are no “stereotypical” QAnon followers. They come from all walks of life: young, old, educated and under-educated, Republicans and Democrats. Such diversity allows people to follow palatable versions of QAnon where they may be interacting with less extreme versions of it— but unknowingly identifying with the major tenants. British Sociologist Colin Campbell coined the term “cultic milieu,” which described a sort of cultural underground made up of various forms of “rejected knowledge.” What results is a constantly morphing pool of conspiracies where followers can “pick and choose” what parts they align with, and ignore the rest. This may explain how Christians or wellness influencers can absolve themselves of the parts of QAnon that contradict the principles of their spirituality or religious beliefs. Although not all of QANon or COVID-19 conspiracy followers outwardly support anti-semitism or racism, it is important to know where these theories come from and where they can go under extreme circumstances.
In conclusion, the strange bedfellows of this “golden age” of conspiracies point to the dangers of conspiracy theories that become loaded with political undertones. Psychology professor Arie Krunglanski explains that after experiencing loss and humiliation, “we desperately seek to regain significance and respect…we are then keen to embrace any narrative that tells us how, and to follow leaders who show us the way.” In the age of COVID-19 misinformation and “fake news,” we as a society must be wary of how conspiracies may embolden fascist beliefs and co-opt our need for stability and comfort in a vulnerable time.