Conspiracies and Conspiracists

Below is one-third of a piece “on the conspiracist mind” by British novelist James Meek. If you’re interested in the whole London Review of Books article, which includes 5,000 words I left out, go here.

When the pandemic hit, social media, hyper-partisan broadcasters, Txxxx-era populism and conspiracy theory were already creating a self-contained alternative political thought space conducive to the cross-fertilisation of conspiracist ideas. Covid-19 and government efforts to control it . . . appear, in the conspiracist mind, as the most open moves yet by a secret group of sadistic tyrants who want to reduce the human population and enslave those who remain. The pandemic and official countermeasures are interpreted as proof, and Covid becomes the string on which any and all conspiracy theories may be threaded. Seen through the conspiracist filter, by forcing us to wear masks, by closing bars and isolating the frail elderly, by trying to terrify us over, as they see it, a dose of flu, or by microwaving us with 5G, the secret elite has shown its hand.

Now that its existence, nature and power have been proved to us, why shouldn’t we believe that the members of this group arranged 9/11? Or that Bill Gates is planning to kill us with vaccines, or inject us with nanochips hidden in vaccines, or both? Why shouldn’t the entire course of world events have been planned by a group of elite families hundreds, even thousands, of years ago? Why shouldn’t there be a link between the bounds to individual freedoms that governments have drawn up to slow climate change and the restrictions they’re carrying out in the name of beating Covid? Surely these two hoaxes are cooked up by the same firm, with the same agenda? Why, as followers of the American conspiracy theory known as QAnon insist, shouldn’t a group of politicians, tycoons and celebrities be kidnapping and torturing children on a massive scale?

A large survey in May conducted by researchers in Oxford found that only about half of English adults were free of what they termed ‘conspiracy thinking.’ Three-quarters of the population have doubts about the official explanations of the cause of the pandemic; most people think there’s at least a chance it was man-made. Almost half think it may have been deliberately engineered by China against ‘the West’. Between a fifth and a quarter are ready to blame Jews, Muslims or Bill Gates, or to give credence to the idea that ‘the elite have created the virus in order to establish a one-world government’; 21 per cent believe – a little, moderately, a lot or definitely – that 5G is to blame, about the same number who think it is ‘an alien weapon to destroy humanity’. Conspiracy beliefs, the researchers concluded, were “likely to be both indexes and drivers of societal corrosion … Fringe beliefs may now be mainstream. A previously defining element that the beliefs are typically only held by a minority may require revision … Healthy scepticism may have tipped over into a breakdown of trust”.

A friend, a BBC journalist, told me about a conversation he’d had with an acquaintance who began talking about the dangers of 5G and claimed that ‘every time a new kind of electromagnetic energy is invented, it causes a new kind of disease, like the invention of radar caused Spanish flu.’

‘But Spanish flu happened in 1918, and radar wasn’t invented till the 1930s,’ my friend said.

‘You would say that, wouldn’t you?’ This was uttered without a trace of a smile.

The author then provides a long description of an anti-lockdown rally in London. The star attraction was David Icke, a well-known former professional soccer player and sports broadcaster.

. . . At a time when Britain had a handful of TV channels, everyone knew his face. Shortly before he left the BBC in 1990 he experienced a metaphysical epiphany in a newsagent’s on the Isle of Wight. Not long afterwards . . . he declared he’d been chosen by a benign godlike agency as a vehicle for the revelation of truths essential to the survival of Earth and humanity. . . . Since then, Icke has worked on his material and his brand, developing his following, writing books, and giving lectures and interviews around the world. . . . In May, following an appeal from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, which pointed out that millions of people had been exposed to online material in which he blamed Jews for the pandemic, denied the reality of Covid-19, played down the infectiousness of viruses in general and lent support to 5G conspiracists, both Facebook and YouTube – though not Twitter – took down Icke’s pages. The action had no appreciable effect on his profile, except perhaps to give him the lustre of the martyr. YouTube, and YouTube wannabes like BrandNewTube, are still thick with Icke interviews by small-time videocasters. Google will point you to them. And although he has been banned from Facebook, his fans haven’t, nor have links to his material. . . . Amazon still distributes his books.

The conspiracy narrative Icke began to weave in the early 1990s is a sprawling affair that changes to follow the headlines, veers off on tangents and is full of internal inconsistencies, but some core elements remain. Icke’s story bears similarities to the influential American conspiracist text Behold a Pale Horse by William Cooper (which was published at about the time Icke reinvented himself as a prophet), and to the pseudo-leaks that drive QAnon, though QAnon tends to avoid the extraterrestrial. A cursory and much rationalised summary of Icke’s conspiracy theory goes like this: thousands of years ago, a race of reptilian beings from another world drew up a marvellously slow plan for the enslavement of humanity, to be carried out by a tiny elite of either – the exact mechanism varies – human proxies of surpassing wickedness, or reptiles in human form. (‘I once had an extraordinary experience with former prime minister Ted Heath,’ Icke told the Guardian in 2006. ‘Both of his eyes, including the whites, turned jet black.’)

The plan continues to unfold, regularly missing prophesied deadlines. . . .

Next, the author discusses an encounter with Dominic, a young man handing out leaflets in a London park:

I skimmed the contents of the leaflet. It seemed a combination of falsehoods, misunderstandings, exaggerations and out of context snippets supporting the evil plan theory of events, all culled without attribution from the internet. . . . I somehow felt I had to intervene, not to change Dominic’s mind or to stop him handing out the leaflets, but simply to make him register that there was resistance to the falsehoods he was spreading. I went over to him – he was handing out his material to a large group of young people sitting on the grass – and told him off. I wasn’t eloquent. I said his leaflets were full of rubbish, and that he should destroy them. He said I should destroy my mask . . . I walked away. It was the kind of futile encounter between the self-appointed rationalist and the self-declared bearer of esoteric truths that happens online all the time, and it was no more satisfactory in the flesh. . . .

Karl Popper​ coined the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ in 1952, in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. He framed it as something that would always be singular, like game theory or chaos theory: it was only later that people started talking about ‘conspiracy theories’. . . . Popper’s notion of conspiracy theory referred to a personal predisposition that could attach itself to anything, precisely because it was nested in the holder’s brain.

Popper saw conspiracy theory as something very old, connected to the religious impulse. ‘The belief in the Homeric gods whose conspiracies explain the history of the Trojan War is gone,’ he writes. ‘The gods are abandoned. But their place is filled by powerful men or groups – sinister pressure groups whose wickedness is responsible for all the evils we suffer from – such as the Learned Elders of Zion, or the monopolists, or the capitalists, or the imperialists.’ . . .

Conspiracy theory fixes on diverse manifestations of injustice, technology and strife, on anything that’s hard to explain. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a dominant key. The othering of ethnicities or particular groups and accusations of Satanism or child abuse are frequent markers of conspiracies, but they all have in common an anarchic, nihilistic libertarianism that takes government as its ultimate enemy – specifically the kind of social democratic or socialist government that shifts resources from the wealthiest to the less well off, that offers a trade-off between greater equality and curtailments of personal freedom for the rich. This might seem implausible, given how central the idea of a gang of super-rich families is to conspiracy theory.

But only a few families are included; conspiracy theory tends to pass over the wealthy as a class. It’s striking that the two billionaires most often accused of being the chief New World Order Satanists – George Soros and Bill Gates – are the ones who have, if at times ham-fistedly, given away the largest chunks of their fortunes to worthy causes, one in support of the principle of democracy, the other in support of better health for the poorest. Gates is targeted because of the vast sums he gives to the World Health Organisation and for vaccine research, rather than for what one might assume enslavement-fearing conspiracy theorists would attack him for, the fact that the firm he used to run provides the software for most of their computers. It’s as if, to the conspiracists, Bill Gates of Microsoft is a perfectly respectable American tycoon and his philanthropic self a wicked alter ego. . . .

This isn’t a conspiracy theory about the origin of conspiracy theories. It’s an observation that the interests of conspiracy theorists and the interests of the selfish end of the plutocracy have a way of aligning. Both are cynical and mistrustful of institutions of authority, the courts, the media, the government, legislatures: the conspiracists because they think such bodies are malign agents of a secret elite, the plutocrats because they place limits on their wealth and power.

Txxxx was not the first conspiracy theorist to come to power. . . . Txxxx’s election was unusual not just because the American establishment saw itself as immune to capture by a conspiracy theorist, but because he embodies in one person the two poles of hostility to liberal democratic institutions: the plutocrat who hates taxes, regulations and impertinent journalists, and the conspiracy theorist with paranoid delusions about a deep state plot against the people. Perhaps it was inevitable that he would become a character in a phenomenon like QAnon.

Some have described QAnon as more like a religion than a conspiracy theory, and it does stand out from the others in that it imagines two duelling conspiracies – an evil conspiracy, with Hillary Clinton, Hollywood celebs and a pack of evil Democrats running a gigantic operation to kidnap hundreds of thousands of children, keep them prisoner in underground tunnels, torture them, rape them, drink their blood and use them in satanic rituals; and a good conspiracy, led by Txxxx and a team of loyal heroes in the US military, whose members are preparing to burst out, break up the paedophile Satanist ring and save the children. In QAnon, Txxxx is portrayed as a cross between Jack Ryan, the tough, smart, patriotic family man played by Harrison Ford in the movies based on the Tom Clancy novels, and the archangel Michael.

There’s​ a danger that in writing about QAnon – a social phenomenon not just in the US but in Britain, Germany and many other countries, and endorsed by a number of Republican candidates – you make it sound more interesting and mysterious than it is. It is interesting, but in the way hitting yourself in the face with a hammer is interesting: novel, painful and incredibly stupid. . . .

Although Q’s impact depends on followers believing that the posts come from a source at the heart of the American defence establishment, it seems unlikely that they would have found an audience without help. Obscure, dull, posted on websites with byzantine interfaces and repulsive content, they would have languished had it not been for two 4Chan moderators . . . persuaded a struggling YouTuber . . . to start making videos interpreting and embroidering the posts. The videos were a hit. . . . The QAnon movement spread when people who would never have gone near 4Chan began dissecting and arguing over each post, first on YouTube and Reddit, then on Facebook. Sites sprang up to relay the posts in accessible formats. . . .Websites and internet entrepreneurs discovered they could increase traffic and make money by tapping into the interest in QAnon. Faded Instagram influencers and obscure wellness gurus found new audiences by pushing hard on the child abuse angle. . .

There have been efforts to portray QAnon followers as directly dangerous: one article in the Financial Times warned that ‘QAnon has the makings of America’s al-Qaida.’ Few Q-adjacent conspiracists have gone as far as [the] North Carolinan who in 2016 marched into a pizza parlour in Washington DC with three loaded guns, intending to rescue the children he believed . . . were being kept prisoner there. But Q isn’t urging people to take direct action. He tells his followers – he refers to them as ‘patriots’ – to sit back, not worry, and enjoy the spectacle of Txxxx’s plan unfolding. ‘Get the popcorn, Friday and Sunday will deliver,’ he said in 2017 when making one abortive prediction. ‘Trust the plan. Step back,’ he told an impatient supporter in 2018. Q has told followers to ‘trust the plan’ 27 times – a plan they have no role in carrying out.

The danger of conspiracy theories is not that they promote action to tear down society but that they delegitimise, distract and divert: they divert large numbers of people from engaging in political action, leaving the field clear for the cynical, the greedy and the violently intolerant. They distract them from questioning authority about society’s real problems by promoting a gory soap opera as if it were real and the result of ‘research’. And they delegitimise the idea that institutions – courts, parliaments, the education system, the salaried media – can be anything other than malign.

To talk to conspiracy theorists like Dominic and Martin is to find yourself pitied as a credulous centrist, relegated to the world of ‘No, but …’ ‘Do you think kidnapping, raping and murdering children and drinking their blood is OK?’ ‘No, but …’ ‘Do you like the increasing control faceless corporations, unaccountable billionaires and remote authorities have over our lives?’ ‘No, but …’ ‘Are you happy about the relentless spread of incomprehensible, intrusive technology?’ ‘No, but …’

. . . In a way the saddest aspect of the epidemic of conspiracism is not the delusions about conspiracy but the delusions about what it is to learn. [In a recent book about conspiracy, A Lot of People Are Saying, the authors] write, ‘knowledge does not demand certainty; it demands doubt.’ How did it get to the point where a smart young man like Dominic can believe in a binary, red pill-blue pill world of epistemics, in which there are only two hermetically distinct streams of knowledge to choose from, his preferred ‘truth’ and the other, ‘mainstream’, ‘official’ version, which [according to him] all those who reject his truth believe without question?


Yes, believing these convoluted conspiracy theories offers a sense of certainty, a feeling of being “in the know”.

On the other hand, Euripides, Shakespeare and Diderot all felt (if you can believe the internet) that “a prudent skepticism is the most profitable quality a man can have”, “modest doubt is call’d the beacon of the wise” and “scepticism is the first step towards truth”.

Hmm. They all sound like reptiles in human form to me.