A Conspiracy Theory Cornucopia for Covid Times

The new book Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories: QAnon, 5G, the New World Order and Other Viral Ideas by John Bodner, Wendy Welch and their co-authors, should come with a public health warning: “If you’re easily disturbed, proceed with caution!” As the title suggests, this is a book that dives into the dark recesses of modern society, where ideas that might seem laughable in the bright light of day take on boogeyman-like proportions. But unlike nightmares that dissolve on waking, the conspiracy theories explore here are very real, and present serious challenges to the collective process of building a safer, healthier and more sustainable future.

I’ve known that this book has been in the works for some time. Anna Muldoon — one of the book’s six co-authors — is a good friend and colleague, as well as being a leading expert on infectious diseases and conspiracy theories. She also happens to be a PhD student in the ASU College of Global Futures. And in talking with Anna over the past few months about covid, conspiracy theories and the book, I’ve been looking forward to getting my teeth into it.

A Conspiracy Theory Primer

Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories is an impressively timely response to fears and ideas surrounding the coronavirus that seem to run counter to logic and reason, and that threaten to undermine efforts to deal with the virus. But more than this, the book is a highly readable and informed primer on the nature and history of conspiracy theories, and why they matter so much in today’s world.

Following an introduction to conspiracy theories, the book dives straight into ideas that quickly began gaining ground a year ago around the origins of what came to be know in some circles as the ‘Wuhan virus.” This is followed by a deeply informative flashback to conspiracy theories surrounding the Black Death, reminding us that, as a species, we seem to have a remarkable talent for weaving conspiracies around fear and catastrophe. This chapter also sets up narratives around white power which, it turns out, is deeply intertwined with evolution of conspiracy thinking. This feeds into the following chapter on Covid-19 and the black community, and thence to anti-vaccination (anti-vaxx) conspiracies.

Bodner and his fellow authors repeat this pattern of historic context followed by present-day reality to great effect in the next two chapters, which first take us back to apocalyptic thinking and the New World Order of the 20th century, and then to the disturbing present-day realities of QAnon and Pizzagate. The chapters that come after these step back to look more broadly at how covid-related conspiracy theories tap into a much wider ecosystem of conspiracy theories, including fears over 5G phone networks, before ending on a more reflective note as the authors explore how to talk to friends, family and colleagues about beliefs that seem to run counter to common sense or evidence.

The result is a richly intertwined tapestry of expertise and insights into the nature and seriousness of conspiracy theories, and how they are coalescing and evolving around the current pandemic and attempts to combat it.

Mapping the Conspiracy Theory Landscape

For a book that has six co-authors, Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories is a coherent and compelling read. Not only can you not tell where one author ends and another begins, but you quickly realize that this is far less relevant than the stories being told. These stories are at times disturbing, and at others disturbingly amusing (Bill Gates for example has one of the largest listings in the index, and one that ends with “see also Antichrist, mark of the beast …” This, I must confess, amused me in a macabre way).

More importantly, the book is an informed tour de force covering trends, movements and behaviors associated with conspiracy theories that directly impact how we think about and approach our collective global futures.

And this is where Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories is essential reading for anyone who’s serious about global futures. While it’s easy to characterize “informed” futures-thinking through rational behavior, science-driven solutions and saving the planet, these over-simplifications overlook the many roles that people — us, in other words — play in moulding, crafting, and ultimately defining the future. This is where it’s imperative that we collectively understand how potentially dangerous ideas can suck people in and sweep through society, while potentially robbing us of the futures we aspire to.

Here, using the pandemic as a focal point, Covid-19 Conspiracy Theories provides a startling and urgent perspective on the nature of conspiracy theories and the threats they present. This is a perspective that is informed by deep expertise, and yet one that is also modulated by empathy and self-awareness.

A Savvy but Sensitive Approach to Those Drawn In by Conspiracy Theories

It would be so very easy to write a book like this on conspiracy theories that depicts people who buy into them as crazy, cranks, or deeply delusional. I’m sure such a book would become a rallying point for self-proclaimed rational thinkers. It may even rise to the loft heights of a best-seller. But it would be disingenuous and phony — falling into the same self-righteous myopia and self-sustaining certainty that plagues the conspiracy theories it set out to debunk.

In contrast (and thankfully), Bodner, Welch, Brodie, Muldoon, Leech and Marshall take a very different approach. They recognize the seriousness of conspiracy theories and the threats they represent to society and the future. But they also recognize that we are all susceptible to being drawn in to these worlds.

As they write, “the painful truth is, most of us hold some conspiracy theories in our heads, and we think they are true conspiracy theories.” As a result, the book exhorts readers to be savvy but sensitive when approaching conspiracy theories, and those who become caught up in them.

As the authors consider how to respond to the challenges presented by conspiracy theories, they first ask readers to examine their own biases, values, and preferred narratives, and to be critical yet respectful of themselves as well as others in their lives. They likewise encourage readers to fact-check themselves.

Only then do they begin to explore how to talk with friends and family, colleagues, and others, about the conspiracies they hold as ground truth.

Informed Action

I suspect that most of us have at least one person in our lives that is drawn to conspiracy theories. And navigating this forms the focus of the last chapter in the book.

This is a chapter that resonated deeply with me-especially as someone who’s spent years working across groups and communities with very different ideas, values and beliefs. Here, the authors underline the importance of combining clarity of thought and self-reflection with empathy if we’re to rise above the ways in which conspiracy theories taint our visions of the future.

To me, this is one of the most important messages to come out of the book. Because make no mistake, for all our science, and all of our self-proclaimed rationality, we won’t succeed in building a more just, equitable and sustainable future unless we also understand who we are as builders of that future, and the conspiracy theories that we are all susceptible to.

“Covid-19 Conspiracy Thories: QAnon, 5G, the New World Order, and Other Viral Ideas” is written by John Bodner, Wendy Welch, Ian Brodie, Anna Muldoon, Donald Leech and Ashley Marshall, and published by McFarland and Company Inc.