In the spring of 2020, while the world stayed indoors to suppress Covid-19, arsonists attacked mobile phone masts in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. They set fire to nearly a hundred masts in the UK, or tried to; there were twenty attacks over the Easter weekend alone, including one on a mast serving a Birmingham hospital. The arsonists believed that the latest mobile phone technology, 5G, was the real cause of the pandemic. They imagined a worldwide conspiracy: either the unexpectedly genocidal effects of the 5G rollout were being covered up by faking a pandemic, or 5G was being used deliberately to kill huge numbers of people and help enslave whoever was left. In the actual world, 5G’s feeble radio waves aren’t capable of any of this – you’d get more radiation standing near a baby monitor – but the fire-setters are unheedful of that world.
As well as the anti-5G insurgency, the conspiracist assault on the mainstream approach to coronavirus takes the form of a suspicion of vaccination, an older concern than 5G-phobia and more of an obstacle to governments’ plans to contain the virus. But the encounter between conspiracy theory and Covid-19 isn’t as clear-cut as that. When the pandemic hit, social media, hyper-partisan broadcasters, Trump-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 – an extreme event, accompanied by what can seem baffling and intrusive restrictions – 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.
One Saturday afternoon in August, during the deceptive summer lull in coronavirus cases in England, I went to an anti-lockdown rally in Trafalgar Square. I heard about it from a Facebook group I’d joined. The group has a strong conspiracist slant, but most of its nearly 13,000 members (there are many similar groups) prefer to think of what they’re doing as ‘truth seeking’, hence the group’s name, Truth Seekers UK. Polls suggest that most people feel the blunt instrument of lockdown works, in the sense that it stops hospitals being overwhelmed, but it would be a weak society where nobody challenged new restrictions on individual freedom. Some enforcement of the rules, like police drones tracking hikers on moorland, has been overzealous. But the protesters at this rally weren’t interested in arguments about whether lockdowns are a mistake, or whether the enforcement of mask-wearing is pointless, or over the balance between protecting livelihoods and protecting lives. The people here believed in a malignant hidden hand behind everything that was happening and everything that has ever happened. They denied that the virus was real. For many non-conspiracists, the sight of upwards of five thousand people from all over southern England crammed together shoulder to shoulder without face masks in Central London, in defiance of the rules against large gatherings, would seem a display of selfishness provocative enough to justify its being broken up by the police. But what is democracy without political protest? And it was a genuine political protest. It was an anti-government demonstration, and the participants had sincerely held convictions. And yet the star speaker at this rally, supposedly organised to fly the flag of resistance to state oppression, was David Icke.
Icke was a BBC sports presenter in the 1980s, smooth, bland and remarkable only for a certain glassy coldness of manner. Before that he’d been a professional footballer. 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, via sessions with the late Betty Shine, a self-proclaimed psychic and bestselling writer of New Age books, and a transcendental episode in a storm on a hilltop in Peru, 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. In an appearance on Terry Wogan’s chat show – notorious for Icke’s turquoise tracksuit and Wogan’s observation to his guest, about the sniggering audience, ‘They’re laughing at you, they’re not laughing with you’ – he denied claiming to be Jesus Christ, insisting he was merely the latest in a line of prophets that numbered Jesus as one of its more distinguished old boys.
That was in 1991. Since then, Icke has worked on his material and his brand, developing his following, writing books, and giving lectures and interviews around the world. Last year he was banned from entering Australia but in 2018 he was still welcomed by large audiences in municipal venues in English towns, where his fans sat peaceably as slides showed George Soros with reptilian eyes, in a corona of hellfire, with the caption: ‘George Soros: Personification of Evil.’ Covid-19 has boosted his profile. 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. The first thing I saw when I last checked the TruthSeekers UK Facebook group was a video interview with him. 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. Only an awakening of ordinary humans from the slumber of ignorance, prompted by heeding the truths revealed by Icke and his ilk, can save humanity. Many of the elite, according to Icke, are Jewish, and his conspiracy theory, like so many conspiracy theories, has a strongly antisemitic slant. (The word cabal, which I found myself using in the first draft of this piece, is from the classical Hebrew word qabbalah, ‘tradition’.) In his book And the Truth Shall Set You Free he says we don’t really know what happened in the Holocaust, and that ‘a small Jewish clique which has contempt for the mass of Jewish people worked with non-Jews to create the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the Second World War.’
There was no sign of Icke when I arrived in Trafalgar Square. Piers Corbyn, whose brother, the former Labour leader, can’t be held responsible for him, was speaking. Piers Corbyn is a physicist and one-time commercial meteorologist who believes that man-made climate change is a hoax. His new cause is the iniquity of lockdown. He had already been arrested several times; before the day was out he would be arrested again for helping organise the demonstration (he was later fined). He told the crowd through a scratchy sound system that Covid-19 was no worse than the flu, and was killing fewer people than lockdown. ‘Whether you believe the virus is a hoax or not, there is no justification in any terms for the Covid lockdown rules,’ he declared. The crowd had no doubt where they stood. They began to chant the title of a pseudo-documentary called Plandemic, massively popular online, in which an American scientist called Judy Mikovits tells a string of fluent lies about the pandemic: that the virus was artificially made infectious to humans in a joint effort by labs in Wuhan, North Carolina and Maryland; that Anthony Fauci, America’s Covid-19 point man, was hiding the fact that it was virtually harmless for his own financial benefit. ‘Plan-demic!’ yelled thousands in unison. ‘Plan-demic! Plan-demic!’
After Corbyn had finished, one of the organisers of the event, a suspended nurse called Kate Shemirani (she also believes Covid-19 is a hoax, but thinks its symptoms were deliberately triggered by 5G to provide the elite with an excuse to vaccinate the population with a mind-control vaccine), introduced Mark Steele, a former bouncer from Gateshead who heads an anti-5G organisation called Save Us Now. Steele told the crowd of his concerns about the harmful effects of 5G radiation, particularly on young people. In 1994, Steele was sentenced to eight years in prison for accidentally shooting a 19-year-old woman in the head, leaving her disabled, when he drunkenly fired shots from a pistol outside a pub in Newcastle.
I moved closer to the stage, feeling I stuck out. I was the only person wearing a mask. I ended up close to one of the plinths supporting the great bronze Landseer lions at the base of Nelson’s column. The stage stood between two of the lions and a group of people had climbed onto the plinth for a better view. A couple of dozen police, wearing surgical masks but no riot gear, stood a few yards from the edge of the crowd. A group of them moved towards us and began to nudge their way towards the stage. Could they be planning to shut the demo down, I wondered? They were heavily outnumbered. From the plinth, a middle-aged man with a Mohican and a T-shirt that made a reference to sex with sheep, wearing a coat tied across his chest like a Highlander’s plaid, raised his fist and began leading the crowd in a chant of ‘Shame on you!’ The police stopped. A candyfloss plume of white hair appeared and began to move past them. The crowd’s anger turned to joy. ‘David!’ came the cries. ‘David, we love you!’ The police hadn’t been getting ready to shut the demo down. They had been forming a cordon to ensure the safe delivery to the stage of David Icke.
Later, I emailed Dominic, a conspiracist acquaintance, to tell him I’d been at the rally. Although he knew I thought he was wrong about almost everything relating to Covid-19, he was pleased to hear I’d been in Trafalgar Square. ‘It is awesome to hear you went to the rally last week, you’ve just made me very happy!’ he wrote back. ‘So what did you think of the rally and David Icke’s speech? I regard it as a historic speech that equals many others from the past. What he says in it does actually answer a lot of the questions you have asked in your previous email.’
Icke’s speech fell far short of historic. He dwelled on his own prophetic powers and in the only memorable segment mocked the ‘fascism’ of the present moment:
Fascism justified by the illusion pandemic of Covid-19. A virus, I must give it credit, that is so well equipped for every eventuality. ‘You must not go nearer than six feet to another person to protect you from the virus.’ So now it’s got a bloody tape measure! [Applause.] ‘You must not stay with anyone outside your bubble for more than 15 minutes.’ Now it’s got a bloody watch! [Laughter.] ‘We are going to make masks mandatory but not until the end of next week.’ Now it’s got a bloody calendar! [Laughter and cheers.] Why can anyone with half a brain cell … see that it’s a nonsense? Because they are making it up!
I knew I might scare Dominic off if I pointed out the weaknesses of Icke’s rhetoric, even if I didn’t mention antisemitism or shape-shifting lizards. But I didn’t want to patronise him by pretending to give his conspiracy theories credence. After all, he was pretty rude about people who accept the reality of Covid-19. I wrote back to him about the difference between safe distances and sell-by dates, and how needing to be a safe distance from an explosive charge doesn’t mean the charge has a measuring tape, and having to eat chicken by a certain day to avoid illness doesn’t mean the chicken has a timer. I asked him if he fancied a coffee. I haven’t heard from him since.
Earlier this year the young German journalist Alexander Eydlin wrote an article for Die Zeit about how he became a conspiracy theorist, and how he stopped being one. The latest survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suggests that in Germany, as in Britain, as in the US, about half the population tends to the view that malign secret organisations are directing events. Eydlin, who describes himself as ‘a politically left-leaning secular Jew from the upper middle class with educated parents and a healthy social network’, said he had been looking for something to believe in, and was enchanted by the explicatory beauty and alternative value system outlined by his conspiracist friends. ‘Before the Enlightenment, evil was clearly located,’ he writes. ‘In the form of the devil, the satanic, it took on an understandable form and could be fought. Now we suspect that we cannot know what evil is or whether it even exists. Not everyone can bear the idea of a life that cannot be defined as unilaterally good or even just.’
Eydlin counsels against treating conspiracy theorists as political extremists: that will only make them see the concept of extremism itself as another of the lies told by the evil conspirators. Nor is there any point in trying to tear down their ideas with factual arguments, because the belief system being attacked is also an identity. ‘In the end,’ Eydlin writes, ‘I wasn’t convinced by the stubborn arguments of people who wanted to prove to me that I was wrong. Instead it was the lasting friendships with people who didn’t share my strange ideas and yet saw me as something more than just a nutcase. They argued with me, but only after they had taken the time to understand my crude ideas.’
I first met Dominic on Rye Common in Peckham, this summer. I was lounging on the grass with my family when a young man dressed neatly in jeans and a shirt, with a round, pleasant face and sleepy eyes, came up to us with a stack of leaflets. ‘Would you like to read something I’ve written?’ he asked, putting one of them into my hand, and walked off. The way he said it made me think he was handing out poetry, but when I looked at the piece of paper – four pages printed on both sides of a single sheet of A5 – I saw it was a conspiracist tract. ‘Think For Yourself … Question “authority”’ it was headed, in red letters. On the first page was a cartoon labelled ‘LOCKDOWN’, showing Boris Johnson in a white coat, holding a syringe, standing over two masked policemen wrestling to the ground a dreadlocked protestor who’d been holding a placard reading ‘GOVERNMENT LIES’.
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 can’t remember exactly what triggered me. Was it the comparative table of deaths in different countries accompanied by the phrase ‘the media will never show you a comparison like this,’ when there can hardly be a news website, newspaper, magazine or TV news show in the world that hasn’t published multiple versions? Was it the notion that a pandemic preparedness exercise run in the US before the pandemic began was evidence that Covid-19 was planned by the evil elite, even though the organisers had issued press releases about it? Or was it that Dominic had gone to the trouble to make the misinformation pouring in from the internet seem more real by getting it printed up and hand-delivering it to us in the park, where we’d come to enjoy the simple, uncontested truth of sunshine on grass? Or was it that a close old friend had recently revealed to me his conspiracist view of the virus?
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 (nobody there was wearing one). 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. As soon as I opened my mouth I realised it was pointless to pick out this untruth or that misunderstanding in his leaflet. To treat it as amenable to critique was a category error, like scolding Ayn Rand for bad dialogue or calling out Trump for being unpresidential. I was reminded of one of the reasons it’s so difficult to argue with conspiracy theorists: you’re faced with a choice between challenging limitless errors one by one, or denouncing an entire edifice of belief, which usually means calling the conspiracy theorist mad or stupid, at which point conspiracy theory has won. It’s like a forest fire that can only be put out one square inch at a time, or all at once, and so can never be put out.
I read Dominic’s leaflet a little more carefully. It seemed even more fantastical than before, but my visceral indignation had faded. In the Trump-Brexit era the time between hearing of some new shame and accepting it has shortened. It used to take me days to work through the Kübler-Ross model over each small death of truth and honour in the public square, but I’ve got it down to half an hour now. When we bumped into Dominic by the lake I apologised for losing my temper. I told him I was thinking of writing an article about people who thought as he did. He was wary. I got his first name and an email address linked to an account on a website, lbry.tv, that he calls ‘my channel’, a collection of bootleg conspiracist books and videos with titles like ‘Your Government Wants You Dead’ and ‘The Real Science of Germs – Do Viruses Cause Disease?’ I remember naively suggesting that he read some books instead of spending so much time on the internet. What books was I thinking of? Maybe Icke’s Children of the Matrix: How an Interdimensional Race Has Controlled the Planet for Thousands of Years – And Still Does? Or the anonymously authored QAnon: An Invitation to the Great Awakening. Free delivery with Amazon Prime.
Dominic, who I guess is in his late twenties, once read better books. In our email exchanges he told me he had a degree in psychology and a social work diploma. He never told me whether he had a day job. He dated the origin of his current state of mind to his late teens and early twenties when he had been troubled by the world’s problems and looked for their root causes. He took out a subscription to New Internationalist. He read Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Greg Palast. ‘It slowly dawned on me,’ he wrote, ‘that there could be a hidden hand behind seemingly random, unconnected events. I came to this realisation myself, long before hearing of the term “conspiracy theory” or “new world order” etc.’ He read George Monbiot and Mark Curtis and took away the lesson that whoever is in power in the US and Britain carries out the same policies.
Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse was his gateway to another world. To me – and I would have imagined before this to anyone – the works of radical social critics like Chomsky and Monbiot, eloquent, internationalist, hallowing the communal, have nothing in common with Cooper’s jittery libertarian screed, reeking of cordite and the Bible, infused with nationalist ideals of American individualism, packed with descriptions of UFOs and giving a detailed history of America’s secret dealings with alien races. And yet, to Dominic, it was ‘the missing piece of the puzzle’, introducing him to echt conspiracy totems like the New World Order, the Illuminati and the Freemasons. He was particularly taken with the chapter titled ‘Silent Weapons for Quiet Wars’. Cooper, who went on the lam to dodge tax and died in 2001 in a shoot-out with sheriff’s deputies in Apache County, Arizona, presents this as a secret Bilderberg Group policy document from 1954, outlining how the US was to be a test bed for the elite’s discovery that societies could be run like electrical networks. ‘It all made logical sense,’ Dominic wrote. ‘If you are the few and you want to control the many, you would need to form secret networks that are able to funnel down into society the agendas you formulate, which will then allow the gaining of greater power and control.’
This echoed a passage in Cooper’s book:
I cannot and will not accept the theory that long sequences of unrelated accidents determine world events. It is inconceivable that those with power and wealth would not band together with a common bond, a common interest, and a long-range plan to decide and direct the future of the world. For those with the resources, to do otherwise would be totally irresponsible. I know that I would be the first to organise a conspiracy to control the outcome of the future if I were such a person and a conspiracy did not yet exist.
The seer of conspiracies, in other words, identifies with the imaginary conspirator. The goals of the secret enslavement programme are crude because they reflect the limited imagination, and life experience, of the conspiracist. This goes against Eydlin’s claim that conspiracy theorists’ willingness to integrate contradictions disproves the notion that they’re trying to find easy explanations for complex events. ‘The contortions that many conspiracy theorists must accept in order to integrate events into their image of the world do not attest to a desire for simple explanations,’ he writes. But is this true? Conspiracists describe epiphanies where they start to see the big picture, the universal meta-conspiracy that explains and links everything. But the picture isn’t big. It’s small. It’s the result of an effort to shrink the answer to every mystery until it can fit whatever doll’s house furniture version of that answer the conspiracist is capable of holding in their head.
Maybe it’s better to see conspiracy theories as lots of small things, a box of McNuggets of folksy pseudo-information. The cure for any flaw in a conspiracy theory is to add to it. Conspiracy theories rely on sheer quantity, on feeding a limitless dole of small stimulations to whatever part of the brain hungers for secret knowledge. The appetite is never satisfied, but the plate is always full. The phrase Cooper uses to describe the conspirators’ silent weapon – ‘it shoots situations, instead of bullets’ – nicely describes conspiracist discourse, including his own. The decisive medium that feeds conspiracy theories is the shared online video clip or streamcast. Now more than ever, when mainstream broadcasters are working from home, the sprawling world of conspiracist TV is presentationally hard to distinguish from conventional TV. The archetypal conspiracist clip is more than an hour long and has an interviewer with a cheerful, reasonable-sounding manner who invites one of those with privileged access to the truth, such as David Icke, to hold forth as if he were the guest on a fawning version of a Sunday morning current affairs show.
The Icke style of conspiracist discourse is never lost for words or answers. It is mimicked by foot soldiers like Martin, whom I met in Trafalgar Square. Like Dominic, Martin didn’t match the cliché of conspiracy theorists as unkempt eccentrics, hippies, stoners, ragged and unbarbered and decked with badges. He was a graphic designer from Swindon, he had a degree, he was neatly and conventionally dressed; he’d recently lost his job when the pandemic forced his main client, P&O Cruises, to tie up its fleet. We spoke for about forty minutes. I peppered him with questions, but he never hesitated, acknowledged a non sequitur or expressed the slightest doubt that he saw the truth. Calmly, with a tone of stubborn and righteous annoyance such as an Englishman might use to complain about a neighbour’s plans for a new conservatory, he led me on. The New World Order planned to reduce the world population to 500 million slaves; the BBC reported the collapse of Building 7 of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 before it happened; the police helicopter overhead was an obvious tactic by the conspirators to drown out the rally speakers; Prescott Bush created communism and financed Nazism; apparent Covid deaths in China and Iran were organised attacks; Covid vaccines would sterilise recipients and implant tracking devices; soon everyone would be forced to have a chip implanted in their hand; the conspirators simultaneously wanted to keep their plans secret and let everyone know about them; central banks needed to be destroyed because they were creating money for themselves; the elite bloodlines of the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and a few others adopted Jewish personas so they couldn’t be criticised without their detractors being accused of antisemitism; these elite bloodlines were psychotic, psychopathic and Satan-worshipping; they went back to Babylon; it was all in scripture, not that he was religious, because all religions were run by the Synagogue of Satan; the conspirators want people to be left-wing because left-wing people liked controlling governments; the gender signs on the traffic lights at Trafalgar Square showed the hand of the Illuminati at work, as did mass immigration.
I apologised for taking up so much of his time.
Conspiracist discourse is an endless tease, always promising a new layer of revelation, or a new angle. The allure doesn’t only work on those who take the conspiracy theory seriously. The sceptic gets a twisted kick out of it: the sense of wonder as each pearl drops from the master conspiracist’s mouth that there are people who believe it. The thing is, it works; it has always worked, even before the internet came along to turn conspiracism into something awfully like an epidemic in its own right. When you watch the full interview with Icke on Wogan in 1991, sure, the audience laughs, when Wogan cues them. But in between there are long stretches of absolute silence in the studio as Icke weaves his fabulations, the camera locked on his face. No doubt many thought it comic, and others cruel, but there must have been many people convinced by the performance, by this man who knew the absolute Answer and was going to spend the rest of his life being five seconds away from giving it out.
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’. The change shifted the concept in the conspiracists’ favour. To speak of conspiracy theories in the plural anchors them in the concrete, even if the person speaking thinks they’re nonsense: they’re still theories about a particular thing. 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.’ At the same time he made clear that he wasn’t denying the existence of actual conspiracies:
On the contrary, they are typical social phenomena. They become important, for example, whenever people who believe in the conspiracy theory get into power. And people who sincerely believe that they know how to make heaven on earth are most likely to adopt the conspiracy theory, and to get involved in a counter-conspiracy against non-existing conspirators. For the only explanation of their failure to produce their heaven is the evil intention of the Devil, who has a vested interest in hell.
To some this will sound like what Trump is doing now, leading a more or less open Republican conspiracy to hamper the Democrat vote in November, using as his excuse a baseless conspiracy theory about ‘vote rigging’. The darker example is the rise of the Nazis, a movement that transmitted its conspiracism to the majority of the German population, then carried through the most hideous and complex real conspiracy in history, the murder of millions of Jews.
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 curtailments of personal freedom for the rich and greater equality. 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. The grandest and most lasting conspiracy theories have swirled around great levelling projects: the French Revolution was a Masonic conspiracy, the Russian Revolution was a Jewish conspiracy, the WHO is a Chinese conspiracy, the British Labour Party and trade unions are a communist conspiracy, the EU is an anti-British conspiracy.
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.
Trump was not the first conspiracy theorist to come to power. Orbán has been the leader of Hungary since 2010; Erdoğan became prime minister of Turkey in 2003. Trump’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 Trump 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, Trump 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. It began in October 2017 as a series of posts on 4Chan, a bulletin board where lonely young men competed to amuse one another with sniggering memes, racist jokes and outré porn, in which an anonymous person or persons, signing themselves as Q, predicted the imminent arrest of Hillary Clinton. Since then, Q has posted almost five thousand times, reassuring followers of his/their identity by using a series of codes that only Q has the password to generate. Q has shifted from 4Chan to another bulletin board, 8chan, which later rebranded as 8kun, each incarnation more sniggering, racist and porny than the last (8chan was also used by the white supremacist terrorists responsible for killings in Christchurch, El Paso and Poway to post their hate manifestos).
Although Q watchers have noted changes of style over time, the basic elements of the conspiracist fantasy have stayed the same. A network of evil child-trafficking Satanists controls most of the country’s institutions, including the CIA and the FBI, but is strongest in the Democratic Party and Hollywood. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – usually referred to as ‘Hussein’ – are among the ringleaders. Concealing his true mission by disguising himself as an ordinary president of the United States, Trump is preparing to take them on. Most of the information given by Q comes in the form of cryptic hints, acronyms, code words and questions which followers are expected to interpret.
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, Paul Furber and Coleman Rogers, who persuaded a struggling YouTuber called Tracy Diaz to start making videos interpreting and embroidering the posts. The videos were a hit. As outlined in a 2018 investigation by NBC News, which suggested that Diaz and Rogers themselves may be Q, 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. A hierarchy of ‘researchers’, sometimes called ‘bakers’, developed, from the obsessive to the casual, adding layer on layer of confabulation onto Q’s original inventions. 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; when Jeffrey Epstein was arrested, then died, and Prince Andrew failed to account for his friendship with him, it was QAnon gold. In effect crowdsourced, the QAnon narrative broke free of Q’s plodding cryptograms, which still look to Trump to mount a military coup against the government he leads, and moved towards its dominant present form: an infinitely branching Satanist-paedophile plot, a preview of a future dystopia in which anyone may be accused on Facebook of the most ghastly crimes with all the due process of a medieval witch trial.
Opposing pandemic-justified social control doesn’t make you a conspiracy theorist, but among the anti-lockdown, anti-mask movement outside the US, signs of QAnon are ubiquitous. One of the prominent faces of Covid scepticism in the UK, Louise Hampton, presents herself in videos as an NHS call centre worker who found she was fielding calls from people in medical distress because they were terrified of going to hospital, but not from people with symptoms of Covid-19. This does not explain why her posts are tagged with the QAnon acronym #WWG1WGA, referring to the movement’s Three Musketeers-style slogan: ‘Where We Go One, We Go All.’ The charity Save the Children has been struggling to disassociate itself from another ubiquitous QAnon tag: #SaveTheChildren. At the rally I attended someone put their protest signs in the window of the Trafalgar Square branch of Pret A Manger. ‘Save Our Children – Stop Fucking Our Kids!!’ one sign read. Another: ‘#Revolution #GreatAwakening If dogs get put down for harming kids then so should NONCES!’ What, I wondered, did this have to do with the British government’s response to Covid-19? In the political arena of 2020, the concept of demonising your opponents has become literal.
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 Edgar Welch, a North Carolinan who in 2016 marched into a pizza parlour in Washington DC with three loaded guns, intending to rescue the children he believed, under the influence of a QAnon precursor known as Pizzagate, 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 Trump’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 …’ The Covid-19-is-fake movement is strongly opposed to Boris Johnson, who might have hoped for more sympathy as the midwife of the conspiracist project of Brexit. In their recent book about conspiracy, A Lot of People Are Saying, Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum have a way of characterising delegitimation – ‘The people associated with these institutions, it is believed, no longer have standing to persuade or legislate, to reason or coerce, to lay claim to our consent or at least compliance’ – which made me think: ‘That’s exactly the way I feel about Boris Johnson right now.’ But my scepticism doesn’t extend to complete cynicism about the institutions themselves. ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it never did,’ Dominic writes in his leaflet. ‘Governments are criminal cartels for interconnected global elites who’ve an agenda … complete enslavement of humanity by a small group of psychopaths.’
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. As Muirhead and Rosenblum 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 all those who reject his truth believe without question? Where they can warn of the dangers of confirmation bias even as they practise it? These are questions that the community of conspiracy theorists can’t answer by themselves.