Artillery Row

Conspiracies in the time of Coronavirus

It’s long been my view that, if only Twitter voted, David Icke would be Prime Minister

On Easter Sunday, the Prime Minister was discharged from St Thomas’s Hospital and dispatched to Chequers to rest. Within minutes, social media lit up with Boris Resurrection Conspiracies. These took different forms. Boris left deliberately on Easter Sunday in order to look like Jesus. Boris didn’t really have coronavirus and it was all a ploy to elicit public sympathy. Boris (or, alternatively, Dominic Cummings) had forced an entire ward of NHS staff to sign the Official Secrets Act so the PM could “get away with it” (the substantive content of “it” varied, of course). 

Over the Easter Bank Holiday long weekend, meanwhile, approximately 50 mobile phone towers across the country were subject to arson attacks from 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 while there’s been plenty of mockery, there’s also been bogus cures aplenty, everything from homeopathy to Donald Trump’s favoured hydroxychloroquine to Gates, to 5G, Chinese bioweapons, and weird Davos theories. 

My lawyer friends (and I) like to think ourselves educated; we’re well-travelled, worldly people. Most of us went to Oxford, Cambridge, or Edinburgh. 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 Oxbridge and Ancient Scottish meritocracy when Chris Lockwood, Europe Editor of The Economist and former No 10 policy wonk comes out with “this is not someone who was at death’s door a few days ago,” then moves onto “something incredibly fishy about the whole business”. FT columnist Frances Coppola, who got wonderfully Biblical, followed Lockwood off the next cliff over shortly thereafter. “Oh what a surprise, he discharged himself on Easter Sunday,” she intoned. “I have no doubt he was seriously ill, but stage-managing this to make it look like he is Jesus is ridiculous”. 

It’s long been my view that, if only Twitter voted, David Icke would be Prime Minister

Not to be outdone by posh lobby hacks, tabloid telly’s Eamonn Holmes joined the fray on ITV’s behalf on Easter Monday, when he cast doubt on media reports refuting the myth that 5G causes the virus “when they don’t know it’s not true”. Talking up his “inquiring mind”, Holmes also temporarily forgot his own membership of the “mainstream media” while arguing “it’s very easy to say it is not true because it suits the state narrative.” 

On Tuesday, Metro journalist Marcus Ball — he of the attempt to bring a private prosecution against Boris over £350 million painted on the side of a big red bus — then told how he’d “sent an FOI request to St Thomas’s NHS Trust requesting confirmation/proof that Boris Johnson wasn’t lying about being admitted there or the severity of his condition”. Even when two experienced hacks — Mark Wallace of Conservative Home and James Mitchinson of The Yorkshire Post — attempted to dissuade him, pointing out that not only was this a “completely bonkers conspiracy theory” but also that “FOI doesn’t extend to medical privacy”, Ball continued to argue that “the PR timing is just too perfect.”

Admittedly, Lockwood, Ball, and Coppola’s efforts — along with a more widely shared Boris Resurrection + Official Secrets Act yarn from pro-Corbyn community-cum-satire site The Dorset Eye — appeared on Twitter. It’s long been my view that, if only Twitter voted, David Icke would be Prime Minister. It’s wall to wall with bonkers nonsense, much of it promoted by a feral Remainer rump operating under the hashtag #FBPE. FBPE’s leader is academic philosopher A. C. Grayling, who — also on Easter Sunday, but before Boris was discharged — came out with this gem: “The Telegraph is working hard at creating the most disgusting Orwellian personality cult around Johnson. Let’s help get it right with some ideas: Kim-un Johnson the Mad Butcher of Downing Street, embodiment of the Fuhrerprinzep, l’Etat c’est Moi Sun King Boris — ”

Perhaps it’s just as well he left the thought, such as it was, unfinished. 

Conspiracy theorists are often decried as easy targets, and I do know when — some 20 years ago now — my girlfriend and I were inveigled into attending a Spiritualist Church service while on holiday in South Wales (they’re the ones who think they can talk to the dead) we both walked out afterwards more sorrowful and perplexed than angry. They seemed deluded but harmless, and we both knew the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is clear that most major world religions — if only a few people adhered to their tenets — would appear to be conspiratorial cults. 

However, I was forced to address conspiracism when covering Brexit and the 2019 general election. My focus, obviously enough, was on the crank-style anti-Semitism that had become widespread in the Labour Party. It was obvious that hostility to Israel or concern for Palestine was only a proxy for something much darker, which is why Labour is so riven with baffling conspiracy theories about Jewish power. More broadly, people tend not to realise that (a) not all anti-Semitism is cranky and (b) the cranky sort is by far the most dangerous. It was crank anti-Semitism — think Jews in smoke-filled rooms plotting to take over the world — that animated many senior Nazis. 

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 do not exist in isolation. They all 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. 

Clever people are often better than stupid people at convincing themselves something bonkers is true

Davies’s particular insight was to note that barriers between the cultic milieu and “the normies” can become more or less 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 or nothing.

Conspiracy theories are also equally common on both sides of the political aisle, although one side may outweigh the other depending on our historical moment (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, starting from one counter-cultural belief and adopting others: hence the existence of individuals who are both Birthers and Truthers.

Relatedly, education isn’t a prophylactic against belief in conspiracy theories. 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 actually be a net negative — it leads some to see patterns that aren’t there. In other words, we’re dealing with a genuine but variable phenomenon. And it’s not good enough to dismiss conspiracy theorists as “simply nuts”.

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 immovable. 

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 extremely 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. 

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