On Easter Sunday, Boris Johnson was discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital and dispatched to Chequers to rest. Within minutes, Twitter lit up with Boris Resurrection Conspiracies. Boris didn’t really have coronavirus and it was all a ploy to elicit public sympathy. Boris had forced an entire ward of NHS staff to sign the Official Secrets Act so the PM could ‘get away with it’. And so on.
Over the Easter long weekend, meanwhile, 5G mobile phone towers across the country were set alight by individuals who believe 5G is behind the pandemic, while WhatsApp groups are full of claims Bill Gates is putting the Mark of The Beast on people with a ‘digital’ vaccine against the ‘fake coronavirus pandemic’. I’m in several legal professional chat groups and have seen bogus nonsense aplenty, everything from homeopathy, to Gates, to vaccines-as-bioweapons and weird Davos theories. Meanwhile, an Australian friend who runs an astronomy club has had her association Facebook group overrun by flat-earthers who’ve glommed onto a mix of 5G and radio telescope conspiracies.
My lawyer friends (and I) like to think ourselves educated. This isn’t to boast, because it’s acutely embarrassing to those who consider themselves rational, above the fray, or members of some sort of meritocracy when Chris Lockwood, Europe Editor of the Economist takes to Twitter and intones ‘this is not someone who was at death’s door a few days ago,’ then moves onto ‘something incredibly fishy about the whole business’. Financial Times columnist Frances Coppola followed Lockwood over the next cliff shortly thereafter. ‘Oh what a surprise, he discharged himself on Easter Sunday,’ she asserted. ‘I have no doubt he was seriously ill, but stage-managing this to make it look like he is Jesus is ridiculous’. Last Sunday, Piers Corbyn (Jeremy’s brother) managed to get himself arrested for leading an anti-lockdown, anti-5G demo in Hyde Park.
If only Twitter voted, David Icke would be prime minister.
Conspiracy theorists are often decried as easy targets, and I know when — some 20 years ago now — my girlfriend and I were inveigled into attending a Spiritualist Church service (they’re the ones who think they can talk to the dead) while on holiday in South Wales we both walked out afterwards more perplexed than angry. They seemed deluded but harmless and we both knew the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is clear that most major world religions — if only a few people adhered to their tenets — would appear to be conspiratorial cults.
Since my experience in South Wales, there’s been considerable research into conspiracy theories, including by two Britons, sociologist Colin Campbell and political historian Stephen Davies. Campbell coined the expression ‘the cultic milieu’ to describe a subterranean world or counterculture full of beliefs that are strongly opposed to conventional ideas and knowledge. He also observed how fringe beliefs mingle in a social environment where accepted and dominant ways of thinking about the world are rejected. At one point in time, this meant obscure small presses or specialist bookshops with meeting rooms upstairs — there was a Theosophical Society not far from where I went to high school — but these days, of course, we have the Internet.
Davies observed that barriers between the cultic milieu and ‘the normies’ can become more permeable in certain circumstances. Conspiracy theorists do not have a distinctive psychological profile, while the milieu’s size as a percentage of the population varies considerably across time. ‘This would not be true,’ he told me, ‘if it reflects nothing more than a specific psychological predisposition’. There’s no correlation between sex and conspiracism, or age, or even between watching conspiracy-themed films (JFK, The X-Files) and belief in particular conspiracy theories. This suggests attempts to curb the spread of ‘fake news’, while well-meaning, achieve little.
Conspiracy theories are equally common on both sides of the political aisle, although one side may outweigh the other depending on our historical moment (UK Labour clearly has a much more serious conspiracism problem than the Tories right now). Sometimes political partisans believe different conspiracies. In the US, Birthers tend to be Republicans, for example, while 9/11 Truthers tend to be Democrats. That said, people who’ve really gone down the rabbit-hole finish up with a conspiratorial world-view: hence the existence of individuals who are both Birthers and Truthers.
Education isn’t a prophylactic against belief in conspiracy theories, either. Clever people are often better than stupid people at convincing themselves something bonkers is true. The intuitive pattern recognition that forms such a large part of high IQ, if not productively directed (especially to an appreciation of the scientific method) can be a net negative — it leads some to see patterns that aren’t there. Piers Corbyn — unlike the notoriously dim Jeremy — is an astrophysicist.
It’s true that people who believe one conspiracy theory tend to believe several, often unrelated. Campbell documented a process whereby those who dipped into the cultic milieu in pursuit of one heterodox idea would then encounter more of them. Davies suggests there’s a moment where someone is perched at the top of the slope and about to ski into Conspiracy Valley and can still be reached. Once he’s skied the pistes, however, it’s too late and his crank beliefs are immutable.
Part of the problem we’re facing with the contemporary efflorescence of conspiracism is knowledge overload. Human beings, confronted with an infodemic as much as a pandemic, try to sort information of varied quality into categories to ‘make sense’ of their situation. Conspiracy theories have a pleasant neatness that makes this process easier.
It’s always been true that the Devil makes mischief for idle hands; maybe conspiracy theories are what he makes for idle minds. Knowledge workers are currently stuck at home, bored, day drinking, and at a loose end. Unlike NHS staff, careworkers, or delivery drivers — all at risk from coronavirus — they’re at risk of conspiravirus instead. It, too, is bloody contagious, and we know there will never be a vaccine.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her most recent novel is Kingdom of the Wicked.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10