The enemy without

Lockdown has provided the perfect breeding ground for corrosive conspiracy theories to flourish. Responding with mockery isn’t enough

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An protestor in Sydney, Australia, in May: Conspiracist thinking rarely deals in novelty (©Richard Milnes/Alamy Live NewsStock Photo)

In the last summer of the Obama presidency, I had lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a discreet restaurant near the White House where correspondents and officials go for iced tea and crabcakes and gossip. My date was the Washington bureau chief of Executive Intelligence Review, a glossy news magazine founded in 1974. Bill Jones, a Bob Newhartish-looking Louisianan with an unfashionable necktie and strikingly British teeth, had just come from the Chinese Embassy, where he’d left a copy of his hefty report on the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s infrastructure project to link Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Halfway through our main course, he told me about the British royal family’s plan to start World War Three.

“Do you know what Prince Philip said in 1989?” he asked. I did. It was a mantra of the bizarre political organisation of which Bill had been a leading member since the 1970s—and which I was engaged in investigating. “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation.” This, Bill claimed, was more than a despairing joke about the state of the planet. It was a declaration of the Queen’s plan to reduce the world’s human cargo to a manageable one billion. “She’s an operator,” he said, with total sincerity.

Bill was brought to this view by Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche, a fringe campaigner and eight-times presidential candidate, who died in obscurity last year but was once sufficiently well known to be a joke on The Simpsons. Their group began as a fairly ordinary Marxist revolutionary committee. (Bernie Sanders was on their mailing list.) In January 1974, however, LaRouche obliged his followers to swallow the first of his many impossible conspiracy theories. The CIA and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, he insisted, were planning to turn America into a giant concentration camp. The first step would be to liquidate LaRouche with a squad of brainwashed assassins. That April, the organisation printed the first edition of Executive Intelligence Review. The business model was simple—it sold conspiracist dreams in forms that mimicked the products of professional journalism and scholarship.

The model endures in the digital world. More than endures. Today, as traditional media organisations struggle, exotic political discourse thrives online. All this, of course, was happening before anyone had heard of Covid-19, but the coming of the virus has sharpened the picture. The actors are clearer, brighter, louder, sadder, nastier, stupider. We, the inhabitants of the locked-down world, stare at our phones, deciding whether to be seduced or disgusted by people who propose that social distancing is part of an undeclared programme of social control or disaster capitalism, that the virus is significantly more or less deadly than is being reported, or that it is prudent to inject bleach and pop malaria tablets.

Who are these people? Some are the same Internet spivs as last season. Men such as Alex Jones, the doughy conspiracy theorist who began the pandemic by using his InfoWars website to peddle anti-Covid toothpaste to its subscribers. (It came in two flavours, peppermint and bubblegum, before the authorities intervened.) Other figures require a more academic label. Agnotology is the study of how ignorance is manufactured. You can make that study when, for instance, Iran’s Press TV and the Kremlin’s RT.com offer the views of conspiracy theorists as sources of credible authority, and reasonable certainties become corroded by unreasonable doubt.

Another, more magical manifestation, is best represented by the owlish, shock-haired brother of the freshly-departed leader of the Labour Party. Piers Corbyn is the carrier of a kind of English mystical anarchism that celebrates the denial of all that is apparent in the pursuit of something much darker, weirder and more incoherent. He believes that the 5G phone signal is exacerbating the effects of Covid-19. But he also asserts that Covid-19 is no more serious than ordinary flu. Lockdown, he reasons, is a strategy that will allow a shifting coalition of hostile forces—the EU, the environmental movement, George Soros, Bill Gates—to impose a new world order using telecommunications and vaccine technology.

Corbyn has had a busy lockdown. On April 26 he was filmed by a Scottish Flat Earth campaigner giving a megaphone lecture in Glastonbury. On May 16 he was arrested at an anti-lockdown protest in Hyde Park. (“Every family has a Piers, I’m sure!” tweeted his nephew, Tommy, with impressive confidence.) On June 13 he manifested in Brixton on the fringes of the Black Lives Matter march, to introduce a speaker called Mark Anthony, who informed his audience that both BLM and the pint-sized far-right agitator Tommy Robinson were “funded by the Zionist George Soros” who “runs both sides of the conflict.” “Now is the time for critical thinking!” declared Anthony, to enthusiastic applause.

Mockery might be enough, were it 1974, and this updated version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was being circulated solely among the members of a few barmy political groupuscules. But it’s not. Hungary has a government founded on anti-Semitic mythmaking. In Poland, TV news bulletins report that the opposition presidential candidate serves the interests of George Soros and plans to give away Polish property to Jews. The current incumbent of the White House, propelled to power by conspiracy theories, remains attached to them in office. We should not be surprised to hear him entertain the idea that George Soros funded the progress of a “caravan” of illegal immigrants over the Mexican border. Nor that the caravan didn’t exist.

Donald Trump is a creature of Twitter, a space he shares with other public figures who ought to know better. The site is where Sir Alan Sugar, the other host of The Apprentice, posted a screenshot of a fake  quote from a Japanese Nobel Laureate, claiming that Covid-19 was manufactured in China. It’s where Britain’s Got Talent judge Amanda Holden published a link to a petition supporting the assertion that 5G phone masts were harming Coronavirus patients by sucking oxygen from the atmosphere. The TV presenter Eamonn Holmes was the exception, choosing ITV’s This Morning to reprimand a colleague with some sub-Chomskyian finger-wagging about “the mainstream media” and its easy acceptance of “the state narrative” about the unlikelihood of dangerous interaction between viruses and phone signals.

Holmes issued a less-than-fulsome apology the following day. Two weeks later, Ofcom rapped his knuckles—on the same day that they also sanctioned the London Live channel for broadcasting David Icke’s views on Covid-19. “Who benefits from what’s happening and what’s being justified on the basis of this, quote, ‘virus’?” Icke asked, describing the workings of the cult he believes is mounting a covert global coup. “Anyone that wants to transform human society into an Orwellian state.”

And this would all be hilarious had there not been 30 reported cases of vandalism to phone masts, had telecoms contractors not been threatened as they went about their work, and had a survey by Oxford University not revealed that 62 per cent of Britons believe that Covid-19 is artificial, 20.2 per cent suspect its is a Chinese bioweapon, and 21 per cent consider it to be a hoax.

Conspiracy theories, like viruses, are hard to cure. There’s little use in telling their believers that they are wrong or foolish—many consider this evidence that their revelations are just too hot for their critics to handle. It’s time-consuming, too. It took one indefatigable researcher days to debunk a popular internet meme that suggested a shot from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) contained a premonition of Covid-19. (The image of what appeared to be a viral particle turned out to be a picture of a packet of spaghetti.)

Better, perhaps, to try to understand the historical forces that shape the false stories that many find so persuasive. Conspiracist discourse often reaches back into time—to the Kennedy assassination, to the rituals of the Black Guelph (don’t ask), to George Soros’s imaginary history as member of the SS—but it usually does this in the service of an urgent warning about the immediate future. It tells us that martial law is about to arrive in Britain; the New World Order is about to manifest; Bill Gates is poised to place tracking devices inside the bodies of millions of human beings. “When you turn this on it’s going to kill everyone,” insisted the anti-5G campaigner who filmed herself harassing a telecom worker during lockdown and found her clip played out on BBC news. “And that’s why they’re building the hospitals . . .”

But if we are to combat its corrosive effects on knowledge, we should work to popularise the idea that conspiracist culture rarely deals in novelty. Its clear and present dangers are usually echoes of old ones. Perhaps the most ancient to return in these plague times was one I spotted on a placard carried by a protestor through Sydney on May 10. Alongside messages about False Flag operations and vaccines and 5G was the phrase “Vril Society”—a call back to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), a science fiction novella in which a species of subterranean supermen have harnessed a crackling biological energy called Vril. The theosophist Madame Blavatsky borrowed from Lytton for her occult book The Secret Doctrine (1888), blurring the distinction between his fiction and her revealed wisdom. (The makers of Bovril borrowed too.) Some readers couldn’t quite exorcise the exciting thought that the Coming Race was coming soon. In 1904, one of them, Arthur Lovell, founded the Vril-ya Club, whose members were exhorted to bathe in moonlight, develop their nerve-energy and inhale and exhale themselves closer to the status of Bulwer-Lytton’s supermen. Now the memory of a cranky Edwardian self-improvement class is incorporated into the bestiary of conspiracist thinking.

Other stories stay the same but change the cast. Bill Gates is now eclipsing George Soros as the bogeyman of choice. But before him, it was Rockefeller. One of the most popular and tendentious videos about Gates—on the website The Corbett Report—suggests that his eugenic masterplan was an intellectual inheritance from the banking family. The genealogy, however, does not really run from Rockefeller to Soros to Gates. It runs from Corbett to Icke back to Lyndon LaRouche and Bill Jones, who, across the decades, have told and retold the same apocalyptic tale about billionaires, viruses and population management. This is not knowledge, but the shadow of it. And genuinely hostile forces can sometimes work in these shadows.

Today, Executive Intelligence Review is a lightly-visited website that publishes paeans to Presidents Trump, Putin, Modi and Ji Xinping. In its heyday during the Reagan years, it was an expensive magazine with bureau chiefs all across the world. One of its big stories in the 1980s was the contention that the Aids virus was a bioweapon escaped from an American lab. They even named the lab. When the fall of Communism opened up the archives, it showed that this conspiracy theory had its origins in Operation Infektion, a disinformation campaign by the East German foreign intelligence service.

I haven’t seen Bill Jones since that lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill. Not in person, anyway. But I did get a glimpse of him on the live feed from a White House Press conference. There he was, among serious journalists, praising the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Those around him, I feel sure, had no idea of his peculiar history with the Queen, Rockefeller and the CIA brainwashers. I knew it, of course. But even to my eye, he seemed a lot less strange than the people at the podium.