Dr Stephen Harper, media studies lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), argues that Covid-related misinformation is a product of our paranoid and resentful age of digital capitalism.
Conspiracy theories are hardly a new phenomenon, but they have been enjoying a new lease of life online in the Covid era. Of course, well before the virus struck, austerity and a massive wealth gap had been creating anxiety and insecurity for much of the world’s population. In such circumstances, as Mark Blyth and Eric Lonergan show in their recent book Angrynomics, people look for somebody to blame – hence the global resurgence of populist politics characterised by rivalrous anger, fear of the other and anti-elite resentment. In the media sphere, meanwhile, the incremental displacement of news reporting by public relations material, the rise of clickbait ‘churnalism’, fake news and online ‘outrage culture’, and the tendency for reporting to devolve into cheerleading for partisan political narratives (as discussed recently in Matt Taibbi’s book Hate, Inc.) have all helped to undermine people’s trust in mainstream journalism and foster the paranoid style in public discourse.
No wonder many Westerners today are suspicious of official institutions and the ‘Blue Church thinking’ (as they say on the Intellectual Dark Web) of the hegemonic liberal consensus. The current Corona crisis has only brought this culture of suspicion into tighter focus. Depending on where you click, you will be told that Covid-19 infections have been caused by exposure to 5G radiation or that they are tied to an elite plan for a global population cull (Google the Georgia Guidestones, sheeple!). Such claims have of course been disseminated across social media by millions of fear-stricken citizens; but they have also been given a huge boost by a much smaller number of influential figures in the alternative media. In the early stages of lockdown, the already well-known and popular David Icke re-emerged as the world’s most prominent conspiracist. His interviews during the pandemic with the former derivatives broker and super-grifter Brian Rose were watched by millions on Rose’s London Real platform.
Now, if you were to be charitable, you could say that Icke makes some reasonable points in his talks and writings. He often speaks, for example, about the need to transcend the politics of left and right and to challenge what he calls the ‘postage stamp consensus’ constructed by the mainstream media. I certainly wouldn’t disagree with either of those propositions. But Icke has forged a career making wild and unsubstantiated claims about the existence of twelve-foot reptilian overlords, the New World Order, and so on, and many of his recent remarks have been equally irrational. For example, Icke confidently asserted in his first interview with Rose that Covid-19 is a hoax and that the virus has not been isolated. This is simply false – Covid-19 has been isolated and genetically sequenced by scientists in several countries.
Another irrational voice during the pandemic period has been the Australian Max Igan, who made a series of walk-and-talk videos during lockdown, mostly posted on YouTube (and after being de-platformed by YouTube, Bitchute). In his talks Igan expounded a series of crazy opinions in a blokeish, parasocial manner (Igan likes to address his audience as ‘folks’). Igan, like Icke, repeatedly asserted that Covid death tolls have been exaggerated. I am not sure why. In the UK, as in other countries, Covid testing was limited in the early period of the pandemic, so that people who may have died of Covid-19 but were not tested were excluded from the government death toll. Also, people who died of complications as a result of the virus beyond 28 days of a positive test, were also not included in the government figures. For these and other reasons it seems likely that the death figures have been underestimated rather than artificially boosted. This is, after all, what one would expect from governments looking to shift the blame for their incompetent handling of the crisis.
Igan also talked about the Covid situation as a ‘plandemic’ implemented in the service of total societal control by a neo-Bolshevik (and alternatively neo-Fascist) elite with the connivance of George Soros – although during a recent interview with the anti-Semitic ‘investigative journalist’ Harry Vox, he reassured his listeners that he has some good Jewish friends. Among Igan’s paranoid delusions is the belief that the ‘lockdowns’ implemented across the world were a pretext for organ harvesting – all those gullible folks staying home and eating were simply plumping themselves up for the cull! It’s loopy stuff, of course, supported by nothing more than periodic allusions to other online conspiracists and Breitbart news stories. But it’s dangerous too. The claims that Covid-19 is a myth or, less dramatically, that death tolls have been wildly exaggerated plays right into the hands of governments in countries such as the USA and UK that were clearly eager from the start to avoid lockdowns and seemed content to let the virus rip through their populations.
Another swivel-eyed YouTube paranoiac is the veteran British curmudgeon Vernon Coleman – a former GP, nationalist and climate change denier – who states in one of his videos that governments are ‘in the thrall of Satan’ and elsewhere that the lockdowns were put in place to keep food prices high by shadowy groups whose ultimate aim is the creation of a global government and world religion. Coleman also denounced the liberal-centrist BBC as ‘fascist’, ignoring the actually racist, right-wing media platforms such as The Daily Mail that are surely more deserving of the title. Mask wearers, for Coleman, are ‘collaborators’ in a war against humanity. Indeed, Icke, Igan, Coleman and their ilk see politics as a Manichean struggle between the forces of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness. For them, as for all reactionaries, humanity is on the brink of annihilation and salvation lies in the masses ‘waking up’ from their sleep (although exactly what they are supposed to do then is left intriguingly unspecified).
Covid-19 has also brought to prominence some figures at the soft end of the conspiracy spectrum. In the UK, we have the whey-faced self-help author Carl Vernon, who mocks those who observe the lockdown guidance as ‘sheep’ and sees wearing a facemask to prevent Covid-19 transmission – a well-supported scientific recommendation – as a form of ‘social engineering’. And then there are more careful, savvy and rational conspiracy-mongers like the American James Corbett who, like some of the figures mentioned above, questions the scientific rationale for lockdowns and expresses concerns about the potential of Covid-19 to be exploited by the security state, while eschewing the more outlandish claims made by the likes of Icke and Igan. But even Corbett is in thrall to the conspiracists’ master narrative that world events are being directed by ‘globalists’ intent on world government – despite fairly convincing evidence that the contemporary international order is actually disintegrating into an ever smaller number of ‘independent’ states.
Indeed, for all their differences, the figures mentioned above have a lot in common, both in terms of their specific beliefs and their broader ideological leanings. While conservative female pundits like Candace Owens and YouTubers like Amazing Polly and Helen of desTroy in the US and Anna Brees in the UK prove that conspiracy theory is not just a boys’ game, the majority of these figures are middle-aged white men with right-wing politics, although what might be called ‘liberal conspiracy theorists’ also exist (in the latter category we might include the Western journalists currently promoting Russiagate – the ceaseless but seemingly baseless allegations of Russian meddling in US and British democracy).
It’s important to acknowledge that the tout court rejection of all conspiracy theories is just as wrong-headed as the wide-eyed belief in QAnon or Jewish-Bolshevik plots for world domination. After all, the world really is shaped by the plotting of the capitalist class, which often operates in Machiavellian ways (as well as plain stupid ways – cock-ups are at least as common as conspiracies). Some conspiracy theories are rational and even well-substantiated; in fact, they are not ‘theories’ at all. One could, for example, list any number of factually established, state-sanctioned false flag operations: Gleiwitz, Northwoods, the Gulf of Tonkin and Gladio, to mention just a few high-profile examples. And it is a matter of record that governments have conducted secret experiments on their populations (the Tuskegee study from 1932-1972), fixed autopsies to cover up state violence (Attica Prison Riot in 1971), covertly sold arms (Irangate from 1985-87), lied about the threat posed by enemy states (Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in 2003), and so on. In light of all this, those who proudly proclaim that they don’t ‘believe’ in conspiracies are simply parading their ignorance about the undoubtedly nefarious operations of businesses and governments the world over. The mainstream media, politicians, and factions within the so-called ‘deep state’ routinely engage in lies, deceptions and cover-ups in order to protect ruling class interests.
We should therefore keep our minds open about some of the claims laughed off by politicians or mainstream journalists as ‘conspiracy theories’. Given what we know about the various actors involved in his case and the extraordinary details surrounding his death in a supposedly high-security prison cell – guards distracted, security cameras malfunctioning – it would seem reasonable, for example, to speculate that the self-confessed paedophile and probable spy Jeffrey Epstein didn’t commit suicide in jail in 2019. And I certainly don’t think that those promoting conspiracy theories should be banned from the major media platforms, as some of them have been, unless there is clear evidence that their ideas will cause direct harm to others. Even the most irrational conspiracy theorists sometimes raise valid points alongside their anti-scientific assertions. For example, the Covid conspiracists are surely right to be asking questions about the extensive and unaccountable power of the global ‘philanthropist’ Bill Gates, who seems to exert enormous influence in areas such as science and the media. They are also right to worry that the crisis will be used by national ruling classes to ramp up the surveillance of their populations.
Indeed, the capitalists are exploiting the opportunities generated by the current crisis to the greatest extent possible, as they always do. But there is no evidence that they have deliberately orchestrated the entire pandemic with a view to exercising tyranny over the global population or creating a single world government – let alone that they intend to harvest our organs. In any case, the deleterious material consequences of the current crisis, such as the massive transfer of wealth to the already super-rich, have hardly been hidden from public view. It was recently widely reported, for example, that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made $13 billion in a single day as his company’s share price soared during the lockdown.
In fact, it could be argued that despite the lurid nature of some of their imaginings, many Covid conspiracists actually under-estimate the depth of the merde that we are in. Take, for example, the anti-lockdown group Keep Britain Free, whose YouTube videos combine references to David Icke with patriotic-nostalgic images of the white cliffs of Dover and choral renditions of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. With almost touching naivety, the group asserts on its website that ‘government exists to protect its citizens’ and posits that Britons are in danger of losing their ‘freedom’ to an overstepping state. All of this reflects a conservative desire to keep things exactly as they are – only without the corrupt elites that are threatening the Peace of the Land. These little Englanders are afraid of losing a freedom that they never actually had, since wage and salary earners are already slaves and their governments exist not to ‘protect’ them, but to maintain capitalist profitability. Then again, the condition of the working class matters little to most of these guys. For them, working-class people who follow Covid safety guidelines are nothing more than braindead dupes – ‘soccer moms’, in the words of Harry Vox, or ‘normies’ and ‘NPCs [non-player characters]’, in the alt-right imageboard argot of Irish conspiraloon Thomas Sheridan.
Socialists, by contrast, take the side of working-class people (who have, it must be said, shown huge maturity and respect for scientific and public health guidance since the beginning of the pandemic). We approach the social world scientifically and advocate a rational, implementable solution to the innumerable problems generated by capitalism – namely, abolishing the exploiting class that has, over the past eighteen months, shown its inability to adequately protect the world’s population from the virus. For us, there really is no other agenda and no other way forward. Even if some of the most outlandish and irrational conspiracy theories about Covid-19 really were true – even if, say, the ‘elites’ really were intent on eradicating humanity, or culling the global population back to one billion people, or instituting a world government – the only means of preventing such fiendish schemes would be to use the force of our majority to create a democratic society without classes or rulers. Then we would finally be able to exercise control over our conditions of living and working – and make adequate provision for crisis events like the current pandemic.
Image entitled ‘COVID-19 Anti-Lockdown Protest in Vancouver, May 10th 2020‘ by GoToVan re-used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.
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