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InternetMarch 22, 2022

How dipping a toe into ‘Covid truth’ can lead to a very deep pool of conspiracy


Someone ‘doing their own research’ on vaccines can quickly find themselves convinced the Christchurch mosque attacks were faked, Putin is fighting for good and that a global paedophile cabal runs the world. Dylan Reeve explains for IRL.

Three years after Aotearoa and the world were shaken by the terrorist attack in Ōtautahi, online conspiracy theory claims about the event are increasing in popularity, and finding an audience among people pulled into rabbit holes by conspiratorial claims of Covid lies and vaccine harm.

A recent “documentary” about the event, which claims the entire attack was staged and victims were actors, was ruled objectionable by the chief censor because of its inclusion of the shooter’s livestream video. But the same claims are made in many other places, and they’re increasingly being shared on local Telegram channels.

This is just one example of the type of reality-defying conspiratorial belief that has become more popular online in New Zealand during the Covid-19 pandemic. People seeking a “truth” they instinctively feel is being withheld find themselves in sometimes quite extreme online communities. 

Recently we were witness to an unprecedented riot on parliament’s grounds. It was the result of a protest that was, despite assertions otherwise, ultimately based upon conspiracy theories. The predisposition to conspiratorial thinking even saw some protesters donning tinfoil hats and, unsurprisingly, the fiery end of the protest itself became the subject of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theory is a loaded term. Many of the people somewhat predisposed to believing conspiracy theories will cite a conspiracy theory that claims the term was invented by the CIA in 1967 in order to discredit those who doubted the official account of JFK’s death. 

Regardless of the origins (not the CIA), the term is often used in a pejorative way that amounts to dismissing the claims in question and, as “conspiracy theorists”, the people making them. 

But the reality is we don’t really have a better way to talk about these things. More accurate terms exist to describe facets of the underlying culture and communications around these ideas – disinformation, misinformation and malinformation among them. But to capture the general concept in a way that everyone understands, we’re left with “conspiracy theory”.

Protesters outside parliament in February (Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone, additional design by Tina Tiller)

The current climate

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but they have become more relevant to all of us in the last two years than perhaps at any time in the past. With the entire world facing the same crisis, and understandable anxiety about the pandemic, there has never been a better time to promote conspiracy claims.

One aspect of conspiracy theory culture that’s often overlooked in reporting on the issue, and even by those embracing some conspiracy theories, is that there are no borders – that is, no defining lines between one conspiracy idea and another.

This has become increasingly evident within communities that are, at least in principle, established around certain Covid-related claims. On Facebook there are a few groups that manage to keep a fairly tight control on what’s posted with heavy moderation, but even there, among comments or just a couple of clicks away on many of the approved links, will be the tendrils of conspiratorial ideas that go far beyond a recent pandemic and the responses to it. 

On Telegram, where oversight is almost non-existent and all manner of diverse believers congregate to share content from all over the platform, there are constant reminders of the all-encompassing suspicion and paranoia that colours the perception of so many.

The majority of Aotearoa’s conspiracy Telegram channels are big tents, encouraging all to share their beliefs on all subjects. While those channels aren’t devoted to Covid, the users there still spend most of their time discussing matters directly connected to New Zealand’s Covid response, and broader questions about the virus itself, or the very existence of germs as a concept.

But other channels are, or were, intended to primarily address topics directly related to Covid, and they still tend to be filled with other ideas, theories and interpretations of world events.

In all these venues you will see posts about NZ government actions interspersed with content forwarded from US QAnon and alt-right channels. 

“If they have their way, it will end with the extinction of the human race through bioweapons like this jab,” writes Onyx in an official Voices For Freedom community chat channel. “Bill Gates and his pedophile ring won’t have anyone to prey on.”

This claim, on the very Covid-centric Voices For Freedom channel, brings together multiple conspiracy theories that predate the discovery of the 2019 novel coronavirus – it implicates the decade-old idea that Bill Gates wants to depopulate the planet, and the Pizzagate/QAnon panic about global paedophile rings that has its origins in the 1980s satanic panic

Elsewhere in the same Voices For Freedom group, Paddy promotes the since-banned conspiracy theory film that purports to prove the March 15 Christchurch terror attack was a government-orchestrated false flag. “Adern [sic] will be doing everything she can to stop the doco,” he writes.

Another Telegram channel, New Zealand Pro Choice, theoretically created to promote an end to mandated vaccinations, has lots of similar content, with user Pamela sharing many links to online articles and videos allegedly proving the Christchurch attack was faked.

Elsewhere in the channel, Gareth brings up the same issue, but takes it a step further. “It was the [Christchurch shooter] incident that prompted me to discard my previous ambivalence to Jews,” he writes. “I realised the guy is innocent, it was a plot to grab NZer guns, for Jews to ultimately take over NZ.”

In fact, Gareth has a lot to say about Jews. The only obvious pushback he receives from other members of the channel is for saying the quiet part out loud where people like me can see it. “Meanwhile, you taint ‘the cause’ and give MSM the ammunition they need to hold against us,” rebukes Calvin.

Two Telegram messages expounding on anti-Jewish conspiracy theories
Gareth expands on his thoughts about Jews in a Telegram group

The filter of conspiracy-tinted glasses colours all discussion of current events. “This is not an attack on the people. Putin is taking down the Deep State quarters and their filthy biolabs, ie. Biden, Clinton, foundations, Rothchilds foundations etc,” writes Bea, but in all caps, in the Hikoi For Truth channel, originally founded to support last October’s Sovereign Hīkoi of Truth.

Many of those convinced that the Covid vaccine is a deep-state bioweapon are also very open to the idea that Hillary Clinton is trafficking children, the Tongan volcanic eruption was a military operation and Vladimir Putin is a good guy, actually. The theories aren’t actually connected in any meaningful way, but if you’re going to buy into one massive global conspiracy, it’s easy to accept others too.

A deep certainty that the powerful are always lying and are fundamentally evil or corrupt makes it easy to latch on to any claim and spread it like children playing the whisper game, especially if it can somehow be connected to high-profile events. In recent months this has even seen elaborate, highly detailed and entirely false allegations made about criminal issues faced by the prime minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford.

A collage of conspiracy theory messages from Telegram
A collage of conspiracy theories from Telegram

Conspiracy underpins it all 

Even where these theories aren’t being openly discussed, the ideas are percolating just beneath the surface. Across most of the Telegram groups and elsewhere, including in person at the now-defunct parliament protest, it’s widely accepted by opponents of the government Covid response that some or all aspects of that response are directly connected to UN Agenda 21 and/or Agenda 2030. The popular spectre of these UN development plans is itself a conspiracy theory – one that, like so many others, ends up pointing at “the Jews”. 

For the most part, initial scepticism and fear about vaccines wasn’t driven by any facts about the vaccines themselves, but by long-standing conspiracy theories that suggest evil forces, often helmed by Bill Gates, are seeking to depopulate the world. Claims of hidden vaccine harms, or even impending death, are manifestations of those existing well-worn conspiracy tropes. Certain people know that the vaccines are harmful because they know that the elites want to kill people with vaccines.

Likewise, long-standing conspiracy theories about 5G were rapidly wrapped up into, first, the Covid pandemic itself and, then, the vaccines. Specifics weren’t important, the existing truth was that 5G was bad, and therefore a new bad thing must be connected to it. 

It is functionally impossible to bow out of the mainstream reality of Covid and find alternative information that isn’t rife with far more extreme conspiracy theories than just those about the virus and its treatments. Instead, any dive into Covid truth becomes a dive into a very deep pool of conspiracy. Even staying away from the various online communities doesn’t help – the majority of online anti-mainstream Covid information is hosted on sites that promote countless other conspiracy claims.

The same pattern exists with the war playing out in Ukraine. People who are certain that nothing happens without a deeper secret agenda just need to search through their internalised catalogue of Bad Things to find one that fits. In the case of Ukraine they look to Covid-related ideas that the virus was deliberately engineered by the deep state and then project forward from that in order to decide that Putin, a Good Guy in their minds, is striking against efforts by the same deep state to create a new pandemic. 

Always a new conspiracy 

If one idea, prediction or plan of action doesn’t play out, there are always many more ready to be adopted.

When predictions of swift and unignorable deaths from vaccinations didn’t come to pass, the ideas adapted. Some suggested that only some people were getting the real (supposedly poison) vaccine, while others received a harmless placebo. Still other explanations suggested that the harm was more long term, and that the vaccinated would “start dropping like flies” in months or years.

Likewise, protesters from Wellington who were unable to affect change with their convoy and occupation were soon presented with an alternative by Australian conspiracy theorist Karen Brewer, who told them that a direct appeal to the governor general was the key to their freedom.

In her regular Telegram videos, Brewer loudly proclaims that Freemasons, who she contends are literally satanic, are in control at all levels of government, business and society. She also promotes ideas about a global paedophile network, and even lost a massive defamation suit in Australia for levelling allegations of involvement in that network at an Australian MP.

But Brewer’s claims of paedophiles and satanic Freemasons don’t immediately seem to put off people who were, just a week earlier, chanting “peace and love” and insisting it was all about mandates. 

From what I’ve observed, and people I’ve spoken to, it seems that encountering extreme ideas (the Christchurch massacre was faked; there’s a global paedophile cabal; Putin is the good guy; Jews are taking over the world) doesn’t push people away from these groups. Instead they simply compartmentalise – ignoring the things and people that offend them, while taking in the things that appeal. 

However, after a while, with enough repetition and “evidence”, people’s perception of what is an offensive idea shifts. Small wedge issues, like the idea that the US election was stolen, start to seem reasonable, forming new foundations on which more claims can find a firm footing.

Essentially, to all intents and purposes, one conspiracy theory is all conspiracy theories. Not every person who disappears into these rabbit holes will adopt all that they hear, but the claims are complex and interwoven, and someone who is simply “doing my own research” about Covid or vaccines will soon be learning about global cabals, paedophile rings and maybe even shape-shifting reptiles.

Keep going!