Since the storming of the U.S. Capitol, QAnon has flourished as a widely-known conspiracy theorist cult. Its followers believe that paedophiles control media and politics and that a deep state  – where a hidden government rules over the legitimate elected body – has been created in the United States. They worship former President of the United States, Donald Trump, and believe that he is a saviour for the world. QAnon is related to white-supremacist and far-right extremist movements, and originated on an imageboard website in 2017. The movement is mainly active online on social media.

The U.S. elections, but also recently the COVID-19 pandemic, have provided an environment for extreme views and conspiracies to spread. From March 2020, QAnon also finds an audience within anti-vaxxers and anti-mask activists to embrace the theory. QAnon in a way unites many different conspiracies. This article tries to outline the relationship between COVID-19 and conspiracy theories and what drives people to believe in the latter.

Conspiracy Theorists in the United States

A common theory around COVID-19 is that evil powers and Microsoft founder Bill Gates want to poison the world with vaccines. Furthermore, two conspiracy theories, the one around Satan-worshipping paedophiles and the one claiming that coronavirus does not exist, are increasingly coming together. Anti-immigrant, antisemitic, anti-5G and anti-vaccine theories are now connected with QAnon. According to a study from September last year, 44% of QAnon supporters say the Coronavirus is not real and 47% say that 5G technology is responsible for its spread.

Alex Jones protesting in Dallas, TX, in 2014 (Photo by: Sean P. Anderson/Flickr)

The spread of conspiracy theories is, however, nothing new for the United States. Alex Jones, a strong Trump-supporter and conspiracy theorist, has long been spreading mainly right-wing conspiracy theories on his website infowars.com. Jones and others make themselves into brands to sell merchandise and services. The health and wellness products he is selling on his website include SuperSilver Whitening Toothpaste, SuperSilver Wound Dressing Gel, ABL Nano Silver Gargle and he claims these products can cure the Coronavirus. He spreads his claim that the pandemic was initiated by the U.S. government only to “wreck the economy and bring in a planetary government”. False claims about the COVID-19 pandemic are widespread on social media, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, and they can be shared countless times before being found by fact-checkers.

The biggest problem with most conspiracy theorists, mainly in the U.S., is that politicians and other officials do not take action against them. In the case of infowars.com, Alex Jones is mainly acting online and thus no state feels responsible to intervene. Furthermore, Jones is a close and trusted friend of former President Trump, which made it easier for him to circumvent rules and laws.

But conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic do not stay inside U.S. borders. In Sweden, Germany and other EU countries, conspiracy theorists have found an audience. For example, Germany has the second most QAnon followers after the United States.

What Drives People to Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

In several European countries, such as Germany, diverse groups of people started protesting  against restrictions in the light of the pandemic, such as lockdowns or the requirement to wear masks in the summer of 2020. Among the demonstrators are not only QAnon believers, but also young students, who fear for their restricted freedom, anti-vaxxers, peace activists, and right-wing extremists. What many of them have in common is the belief in conspiracy theories and a mistrust in government.

German protest in Frankfurt am Main, in 2020 (Photo by: Kai Schwerdt/Flickr)

To learn more about this, The Perspective interviewed Alexander Libman, Professor of social sciences and East European politics at the Freie Universität Berlin. Professor Libman works on the intersection between economics, political science and sociology in his research on anti-Western conspiracy thinking. He told The Perspective that: “[b]elieving in conspiracy theories is actually a fundamental feature of human nature. People tend to see regularities and patterns around them even if they do not exist, and they tend to assume some sort of design or intention behind random events. These features of the human psyche are necessary for us to co-exist in a society, but they also produce belief in conspiracy theories. Thus, if we encounter phenomena, which threaten us and which we do not understand, we immediately start searching for a malicious plan explaining them – and start looking for conspiracies.”

Why Are Conspiracy Theories so Popular Just Now?

The increased reach and exposure of conspiracy theories can be explained first of all with the internet. These days, all of us are hyper-connected wherever we are. We have access to an overwhelming volume of information, but also misinformation is rife. Secondly, especially in times like these – unforeseeable, unpredictable, and difficult to grasp and understand due to an ongoing pandemic – it is normal human behaviour to seek explanations. Many people may feel somewhat lost, because they do not know what the future might look like after the pandemic eases. Asked about the relationship between conspiracy theories and the pandemic, Alexander Libman told The Perspective that “[t]his combination of randomness and of enormous impact on our lives is precisely the fruitful ground for conspiracy theories”.

It can thus be concluded that we are currently not only facing a worldwide pandemic, but also an information crisis and both seem to have come to stay for some more time. From the assassination of President John F Kennedy, to the moon landing, to 9/11, to the flat earth, to the COVID-19 pandemic to name a few, we are not safe from the spreading of conspiracy theories in modern times. 

For some hilarious conspiracy theories related to COVID-19, check out this podcast by The Perspective about the threat and fascination of conspiracy theories.

Sanja Pfister