There’s a woman I know running a wellness coaching business in Sydney’s eastern suburbs who tells me Trump is a “light worker”.
There are people who “follow” me – mums making their own bone broth, yoga teachers posting Rumi memes – who believe the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, is storing kids in tunnels under Melbourne’s CBD. When he’s not giving daily Covid-19 press conferences in his reassuring polar fleece, they tell me, he is involved in a global child sex trafficking cabal.
Some retweet Pete Evans’ links to David Icke, a Holocaust denier who thinks the world is run by shape-shifting lizards from outer space.
As Victoria’s lockdown takes its toll, these people I loosely know have flooded my social feeds with impassioned pleas for me to “wake up” and fight #msm (mainstream media), quoting what we now know to be QAnon conspiracy jargon, hashtagged and often in screaming caps.
When I ask to see their research (I’m genuinely curious and the sheer onslaught has made me question my adherence to the scientific method) that coronavirus is a hoax dreamed up by a satanic cell of elites, I am directed to alt-right YouTube links and the viral documentary Plandemic.
When I flag (in what I hope is a calm digital tone) the film has been removed from most digital platforms and Science magazine has systematically disproved most of its claims, I’m told it’s me who’s been sucked into the (#msm) conspiracy.
#DOYOUROWNRESEARCH, they scream-text at me. I asked one commenter the other day, “How do you know vaccines are a ‘Deep State’ plot to wipe out white people?” “How do YOU know it’s not?” was the reply. It felt like biting my own teeth.
I’m active on social media, I’m an Australian woman in the public eye and I regularly share political posts. Which is to say, I am a repository for the full psychological kaleidoscope of public opinion, fear and blame circling the zeitgeist. I’ve also spent the past three years researching the colliding Black Swans and Hyperobjects that have culminated in the clusterfuck that is 2020, for my latest book This One Wild and Precious Life. I thought I’d mined most of the dark corners, was alive to all the “unprecedents”.
But little prepared me for this most recent pop-political mash-up, coined conspiritualism. It’s certainly a Venn overlap that is hard to fathom. How did wellness warriors come to unite with the alt-right QAnon community? How did the “love and light” go so dark?
Well, first it’s worth acknowledging that this is not the first time the new age community has joined forces with the far right. The Nazis used astrologers; Hess, the deputy führer, opened a centre for alternative medical practices. It’s also not uncommon for child sex trafficking theories to become the convergence point for conspiracy groups from both ends of the spectrum – hurting children is an easy way to demonise an enemy. Even tunnel theories have been around for decades.
Things today are crazy uncertain. The climate and biodiversity devastation, a global pandemic, worldwide recession – we know the gnarly gist. In such magnitude-10 wobbly times, we have often mobilised against an enemy. It’s kept us united with our tribe and feeling safe. But this is not a war. No one identifiable force caused the viral leaps that led to the coronavirus pandemic, no one generation caused global warming.
When we don’t have an identifiable enemy – or worse, the enemy is “us” – it is tempting to create one. As the cruel chasm between the haves and have-nots widens, it’s understandable the “elites” of politics, science, Hollywood and business become a target for terrified people.
There’s also this. My sense, as something of a veteran (albeit retired) of the wellness realm, is there’s a genuine desire for truth behind the phenomenon.
The wellness and alternative spiritual crew have united over the past decade to expose the vested interests of the food, pharmaceutical and oil industries – for valid and worthy reasons. Drug companies have abused our health. The Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health. And the fight to expose truth has united this community.
Meanwhile, political trust is at an all-time low globally. Media and other moral structures that once held the status quo accountable have desiccated. It’s understandable that we be suspicious and questioning. I am on a number of issues. But as the world gets more complex and noisy, truth can easily become confused with “truthiness”.
Under the sheer volume of competing facts and studies, news stories and social media posts that bludgeon us daily, we succumb to truth-lite. The overwhelm sees us seek expedient options.
As I argue in my book, we are wholly ill-equipped to deal with fake news. We have lost the ability to read closely and deeply. Our attention spans are shot – rendering us entirely incapable of being resilient to bullshit. Studies show most of us simply can’t work our way through complex issues like life-affecting contracts and information relating to our political responsibilities (um, Brexit!).
Ditto the science that explains how viruses and vaccines work, or how to check if science is gold standard. Or whether a YouTube documentary is reputable. We have access to more information, but no one taught us how to sift through it. Indeed, a recent study found that people are a lot more likely to share false coronavirus information than they are to think about whether it’s true.
Thinking about whether something is true or not is hard work, and so as Maryanne Wolf puts it, this cognitive flaccidity “incentivises a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery”.
I’d also add that sharing exclusive information after you’ve done “your own research” (flaccid or otherwise) can provide us with a sense of agency in a world that has left us feeling increasingly overwhelmed and powerless. We “know” there’s an international cabal of sex traffickers telling us to wear face masks because – everyone on Facebook says it’s true. It’s a bit like why we all bought toilet paper when the pandemic first hit: because everyone bought toilet paper. Studies show we repeatedly trust social proof far more than evidence-based proof. It’s human, understandable.
Truth-lite then conflates with what I call spiritualism-lite. Contemporary spiritualism has tended to cherry-pick the “love and light” feel-good bits of the various traditions, the bits that promote personal freedom and individuality, leaving out the responsibility, service and the sacrifice to the greater good.
We connect to our yoga mats and go inward to connect to ourselves, we attend to self-care of our gut microbiota, but eschew politics and heavy stuff. When these diet versions of the real thing converge, being told to isolate or wear a mask is seen as an affront to flowy freedom – so must amount to a conspiracy, rather than a noble act of civic engagement.
There’s a meme a wellness blogger with a gut powder range quoted back at me in my Instagram comments thread, after I posted what could certainly be read as a condescending remark. It’s a Rumi line I feature in my book, for there truly is a Rumi line for every moment of human despair: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
We are capable of meeting in this field. Human history is full of such moments where we have unified not around an enemy but around a bigger, higher cause. Often it’s truth. We are all reeling from the disconnection and competitive fragmentation that the neoliberal model has driven us to, and we all know that nothing but a monumental shift will steer the ship right.
We will indeed need to do our own research and demand more truth. But we will also need to defer to and respect science to do so. We need to understand that research done via YouTube is not “your own research”. It’s an algorithm at play that handcuffs us to our worst cognitive biases. We need to be sceptical – but for the sake of understanding, not to create more tribalism. I would argue that we also need, at a broader level, to instigate fake news resilience training, like Finland has. It works.
I find my ultimate comfort and hope in this: conspiracy theories don’t satiate for long. We move on from them, as we do with all diet or “lite” versions of things. We ultimately seek the full-fat version of life.
Climate activist, Trump supporter, bone brother maker – we are all feeling unsatiated, disconnected, baffled. We’re all trying to find truth and certainty. Ironically, it’s our disconnection that unifies us. And it’s our yearning for full-fat life that, I hope, will see us meet in the field.