15 December 2020

Conspiracism

‘Constituent Covid-19 apocalypses: contagious conspiracism, 5G, and viral vaccinations’ by Tristan Sturm and Tom Albrecht in (2020) Anthropology and Medicine comments 

The uncertainties and scale of the Covid-19 pandemic has mobilised global anxieties and insecurities, and many cultural groups have conjuncturally embedded conspiracy theories within millennial and apocalyptic thought to explain and find meaning in the pandemic. The apocalypse lends itself well to conspiratorial thinking because conceptually it is flexible enough to reflect any crisis. To this end, the global development of Covid-19 conspiracism is what the authors term ‘contagious conspiracism’ which is defined as viral global cultural conspiracism. The paper explores how millennialist responses to Covid-19 in various media outlets transcend academic categories of analysis and cultural boundaries between, say, religious and secular, far-right and radical left. First explored is how the crisis became embedded in established (mainly American) contemporary millennial beliefs and prophecies through selected far-right, evangelical and radical left narratives. Second, it is shown how these theories have been ‘improvised’ to include 5 G and also travelled to Europe and taken on geographical significance in Belfast and Berlin. Third, the authors illustrate the shared ingredients, motivations, and semiotics across apocalyptic conspiratorial Covid-19 narratives, all of which resonate with concerns about power, specifically emergent surveillance technologies, governmental abuse of power, and neoliberal capital, with divergent truths about who is blame from 5 G/vaccine theories to corporate technocapitalism. The paper concludes that these shared discourses across apocalyptic and conspiratorial Covid-19 narratives mean many of us are conspiracists and/or conspiracy theorists at some level and is therefore both revealing of the similarities and has the potential to create democratic constituencies. 

The authors argue

 The crises of health systems and economies facilitated by a new and impalpable threat, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, induced societal and individual anxieties around the globe. Scientific uncertainties, catastrophic images from hospitals, profound changes to our everyday lives and an overflow of partially contradictory information by experts and politicians mobilize many people to look for security and meaning in millennial/millenarian and apocalyptic explanatory models (Van Prooijen and Douglas 2017). By apocalypse and millennium, the authors mean an abrupt and imminent crisis, the apocalypse, that ushers in a new world order via a revelation or revolution, the millennium (Stewart and Harding 1999). Such thought reflects contemporary fears, threats, and popular discourses about the unknown in an attempt to explain the present and future through causal and teleological assumptions (Boyer 1992; O’Leary 1998). Similar reflections can also be found in so-called ‘conspiracy theories’, or from a more Foucauldian perspective, counter-hegemonic knowledge claims which provide a wider narrative of political resistance (Foucault 1980; Robertson 2016). While the Covid-19 pandemic will re-define health and medical anthropology research programmes in the years ahead, this paper contributes here to emerging inquiry within medical anthropology concerning conspiracies around viruses and viral infections (Ali 2020; Durand and Cunha 2020; Manderson and Levine 2020; Sams, Desclaux, and Sow 2020). This is what the authors term ‘contagious conspiracism,’ which is defined as both viral global cultural conspiracism and, academically, the burgeoning interest in the relationship between viruses and conspiracism. 

Many conspiracy theories gainsay dominant explanations of the origin, spread and cure of the virus to offer alternative knowledge which claims that the pandemic is artificially precipitated to introduce a new millennium of suppression, surveillance and control. The apocalypse lends itself well to conspiratorial thinking because conceptually, the apocalypse is a plastic narrative, flexible enough to reflect and allegedly explain any crisis (Howard 2006). This paper contributes to the theoretical conceptualization and framing of the relationship between Covid-19, conspiracism, and apocalypticism. Primarily in this paper the authors are interested in the shared ingredients, motivations, and semiotics across apocalyptic conspiratorial Covid-19 narratives. The authors are particularly interested in the ways in which apocalyptic conspiratorial discourses combine, are conjunctural, and resonate across religious and secular, and left and right politics. To this end, what can responses to the Covid-19 crisis tell us about the presumed academic categories of analysis and cultural boundaries of apocalyptic and millennial thought? It is here that the authors offer in the conclusion a call for a democratic constituency. Secondarily, this paper is a theoretically motivated exploration, provocation and intervention into the current milieu for researching Covid-19 related apocalyptic and conspiratorial logics within medical anthropology and geography. Because of the primary and secondary purposes, methodologically the authors pull from a broad range of sources, examples, and instantiations with the intention of breaking down the three major, and yet in no way homogenous, analytical categories: far-right, evangelical, and radical left. 

Towards this framing, this paper finds a ‘bewildering diversity’ (Barkun 2013, 15) of millennialist responses to Covid-19 in alternative and religious media outlets or in user-generated content on social media platforms which transcend the boundary between what is thought to be religious and secular. The paper illustrates below that ‘the presumed dichotomy that separates religious and secular millennialists is increasingly undone’ (Wilson 2017, 424). The authors argue that broadly non-religious conspiracist millennialism have always borrowed apocalyptic thinking from Christianity (among other religions), unintentionally secularizing their teleology (Bull 1996) or where ‘millennial motifs’ provided a vehicle for radical or totalitarian movements (Barkun 1974, 8; Cohn 1957). For the authors, apocalypticism is not only a religious, conspiracist or spiritual discourse, but also a societal and political one which is founded in teleological thinking that assumes that profound change is imminently upon us and immanently behind us, ahead of us, and within us (Sturm 2012). 

American conspiracism, so far, was less concerned with pandemics and diseases as its focus in recent decades was on geopolitics, terror, wars and climate change, although the conspiracist anti-vax movement became increasingly popular in the United States (Uscinski 2020). As Humphreys (2002, 845) reflects on the popular imagination of pandemics: ‘in the US we have largely forgotten what it is like to feel that our place is contaminated, diseased, and unsafe… most of us feel that our homes and towns are safe from epidemic’. Besides the minor outbreaks of E. Coli, measles, West Nile, salmonella, a brief but localized anthrax scares at the turn of the century and later SARS, swine and avian flus (Davis 2005), such fears, like Ebola, were geographically repressed as ‘over there’. Even in the HIV/AIDS epidemics, there was always an outsider: gay men, minority racial categories, intravenous drug users, sorcery, or American conspiracy (Palmer 1997; Rödlach 2016). Many conservative evangelicals politicised HIV/AIDS and interpreted the ‘the increased visibility of gay and lesbian people as a sign of the end of the world’ (Long 2012: 226) rather than the disease itself. Such geosocial distancing of Other health crises is reflective of cis-gendered ‘white privilege’ (Manderson and Levine 2020, 368). But of course, popular films like Contagion (2011) and 28 Days Later (2002) (which became top downloads during lockdown) have, by combining anxiety with entertainment, primed us about the potential for an apocalyptic pandemic caused by an ethereal Other: a virus. In an accelerating and globalized world, viruses can theoretically reach anywhere in the globe in very little time; they are everywhere and visibly nowhere. The ubiquitous global reach of the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic makes it all the more apocalyptic and its invisible omnipresence stimulates what the authors call ‘contagious conspiracism.’ Alternative media and the internet are carriers for millennial and conspiracist discourses and they have the power to give rise to emotionally loaded street protests, incite the destruction of telecommunication technologies, and influence decisions made by state leaders and governments. 

This paper engages with the formation and contagion of millennial and apocalyptic Covid-19 narratives which deal with the virus. First, this paper explores how the crisis became embedded in established contemporary millennial beliefs and prophecies among right-wing conspiracist, evangelical, and radical left groupings which the authors argue is a testament to the narrative plasticity of such thought, rather than the proclaimed inerrant certainty of such prognostications. Second, the authors use Barkun’s (2013) concept of ‘improvisational millennialism’ which describes the formation of new conspirational narratives independently from any (mainly American) ideological tradition to explain the diverse interpretations of the 5 G/vaccine Covid theories. The authors then show how these theories ‘travelled’ and were locally incorporated into anti-state lockdown protests in the European cities of Berlin and Belfast. These newly formed millennial-conspiracist narratives draw, for instance, from evangelical millennialism, the anti-vaccine movement, New Age, left wing and right-wing conspiracism. In that context, this paper concludes that these cross-constituent responses to the pandemic in relation to the coronavirus illustrates that a wide-spread scepticism towards official accounts of truth as well as common political goals can bring together distinct millennial and conspiracist groups with varying political attitudes into democratic constituencies.