Conspiracy Theories: Feeding off the social malaise

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What lies behind the surge in groups such as QAnon? Social media has played its role in amplifying their dangerous theories, but they are feeding on real and growing social tensions, writes Richard Donnelly.

What lies behind the surge in groups such as QAnon? Social media has played its role in amplifying their dangerous theories, but they are feeding on real and growing social tensions, writes Richard Donnelly.
Conspiracy Theories: Feeding off the social malaise
For many, the incredible growth of conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic has either been a source of amusement or amazement. Claims that Covid-19 is caused by 5G telecommunications infrastructure and that proposed vaccination programmes are actually a plot to implant microchips in the population have been widely and rightly ridiculed. Newspapers publish endless articles detailing the bizarre and intricate ‘beliefs’ of movements such as QAnon which claims Donald Trump is leading the resistance to a secret satanic cabal which rules the world. Yet, such theories are proving to be more than just the butt of jokes and fodder for journalists. Instead, it’s becoming clear that conspiracy theories can be fashioned into a powerful weapon by the far right.
In the US and Germany, the far right has been at the heart of conspiracy theorist demonstrations against public health measures such as mask wearing, mass testing and physical distancing. In Britain, similar demonstrations have taken place. Although these have had less involvement from established far-right groups, they have hosted antiSemitic speakers such as notorious conspiracy theorist David Icke. The dangers of this convergence between the far right and conspiracy theorists were spelt out in early October when a plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of the US state of Michigan was uncovered by police. Fourteen members of a far-right militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, were arrested and charged with planning to plant bombs in public places to create a cover under which they could abduct the governor.
The plot was fuelled by claims that the dangers of coronavirus had been hugely exaggerated by the media to destroy the US economy and thus deny Donald Trump victory in the upcoming presidential election. At least one of those charged endorsed QAnon online and others had posted absurd claims about, for instance, the use of mercury in vaccines. This was not the first evidence that conspiracy theories can be utilised by the far right to legitimate violence. In February a fascist gunman killed nine people in two shisha bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt, in Germany. In a video explaining his motivations, he referenced a number of outlandish theories associated with QAnon. Indeed, QAnon’s claim that the satanic cult that rules the world is headed by Jewish financiers such as George Soros and the Rothschild family are directly borrowed from neo-Nazi conspiracy theories. The response of the political mainstream to the growth of conspiracy theories has been to call for social media giants to shut down their spread online.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been absolutely central to the circulation of conspiracy theories during the pandemic. These corporations make huge amounts of money out of the traffic and advertisement that these theories bring with them. According to one investigation, Facebook alone has published 200 paid-for adverts that endorsed QAnon, including ads for Q-branded merchandise such as hats and t-shirts. These ads are estimated to have appeared in people’s feeds around 2.4 million times. Facebook has also been home to some of the most important online QAnon groups, with millions of users among their membership.
However, pressure has built on Facebook to take down QAnon content, particularly after the plot to kidnap the Michigan governor was exposed. A crackdown in midOctober led to the biggest QAnon groups being deleted. Other social media companies such as TikTok have followed suit. Being banned from social media platforms will be a massive hit to QAnon. There are other social media platforms that do much less to police those who post on them, such as Discord and Gab. These act as safe havens for online far-right subcultures driven away from mainstream social media. But being forced to retreat into these dark corners of the internet will, to some extent, cut QAnon activists off from potential recruits. It’s right that big social media corporations are made responsible for hosting content that endorses anti-Semitic and farright conspiracy theories.
Nevertheless, these sorts of bans raise questions. Importantly, there is the issue of whether unelected figures such as Mark Zuckerberg should have the ultimate say over what can be said in the public sphere. Facebook is known to not just target the far right, but also the left. For example, it’s been accused of attacking the Palestine solidarity movement by taking down pages and banning users. Technology firms such as Twitter and Facebook are not politically neutral. They increasingly have an important relationship with the state. This has been underlined by their role in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Executives from companies such as Google have been part of the Sage meetings, which advise the government on its handling of the pandemic, and have helped to develop the NHS test and trace app. Silicon Valley is often associated with libertarianism and liberal attitudes, but these computing corporations are now huge monopolies which often go hand-in-hand with the reactionary agendas of capitalist states.
For instance, Palantir, the corporation started by Facebook co-founder and board member Peter Thiel, has sold data-mining services to Metropolitan Police and the Ministry of Defence. Thiel himself donated millions to the 2016 Trump campaign and has links to US white nationalists. The power that such people have to control what is communicated via the internet is concerning. More fundamentally, the effect Facebookstyle bans can really have on the circulation of conspiracy theories is questionable. Shutting down QAnon groups is one thing, but it is not possible to simply ban the whole mess of conspiracy theories that have grown more and more entangled during the pandemic, from anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to those bewailing the supposed risks of 5G masts. Often liberal commentators suggest that conspiracy theories are a result of how platforms such as Facebook allow people to occupy a ‘social media bubble’ in which their own opinions are not challenged.
However, one needs only to look at, for example, Nazi anti-Semitism or the McCarthyist witchhunts in the US in the 1950s to see that conspiracy theories are not simply a product of the internet. So what is driving the explosion of conspiracy theories today? One key factor in the spread of conspiracy theories is simple material interest. A survey by one of the main anti-lockdown campaign groups in Britain found that 44 percent of its members and supporters categorised themselves as selfemployed or owning their own business. This compares with 15 percent in the total workforce. ‘Plandemic’ It’s easy to see why people who own businesses would be drawn to theories that the threat of coronavirus is exaggerated or even that the pandemic is in fact a ‘plandemic’ hoax. Small businesses have been particularly badly hit by the crisis.
A recent poll identified self-employed people as the most likely to believe that the government has ‘overreacted’ to the threat from Covid-19. There is a danger that some workers will also accept conspiracy theories about Covid19 if the trade union movement fails to fight back against mass unemployment. Presented by the government with a choice between jobs and health, some will choose jobs and seek to downplay the public health crisis. However, there is more to the spread of conspiracy theories than economics. The ground for their growth has been prepared by a deep crisis of legitimacy for the main institutions of capitalist society in much of the world. Traditional social authorities such as politicians, the media and civil servants have become associated with decades of neoliberal economics which have impoverished ordinary people.
Phenomena such as the Brexit vote of 2016 have underlined the scale of this delegitimisation. Despite almost all of the main institutions and ‘experts’ of British capitalism warning of the perils of exiting the European Union, including the Confederation of British Industry, the Bank of England and all the major political party leaders, a majority of people still voted for Leave. The Edelman Trust Barometer — an international survey that looks at public trust in governments, the media, NGOs and corporations — identifies this declining confidence in such bodies as a global trend tied to increasing inequality. For some, their distrust of traditional authorities is widening to encompass public health experts and scientific advisers to governments.
This cynicism is encouraged by the way these experts have often participated in imposing confused, ineffective and contradictory public health measures which restrict ordinary people’s freedoms while failing to challenge employers who force workers into unsafe conditions. The multiple social, economic and political crises triggered by the pandemic are deepening the malaise produced by the discrediting of the main ideological institutions in capitalist society. Social media bans simply cannot reverse the deep social processes which have brought us here. Richard Donnelly is co-editor of International Socialism journal.