Conspiracy Theories

Novelist James Meek writes for the London Review of Books:

* 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.

* 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.’

* 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.

* [David] 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.’)

* 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.’

* 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.

* 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.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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