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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyNovember 20, 2020

Mystic paranoia: How conspiracy theories infiltrated the NZ new age community

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Belief we tend to associate with the fringes of US society have torn a swathe through Aotearoa’s traditionally easy-going if occasionally oddball community of hippies, yoga teachers, and spiritual festival-goers. From the outside, Joe Nunweek finds out if it will ever be the same.

Ady* remembers the night she finally tried to intervene with Eve. They had been friends since primary school, inseparable through their chaotic early 20s when they both worked hospo, and close despite their different lives since then. “After hospo, we both found yoga of our own volition to calm down the brain chatter we’d used alcohol for. It gave me enough quietening down to get stuff done, and for her it was like, ‘I’ve found my thing’. She did all the yoga retreats in New Zealand, then went to India for one. The yoga and wellness community is really intoxicating when you’ve been a bit lost.”

But when New Zealand was plunged into its second lockdown Eve didn’t seem like she was doing anything but posting several times a day on Facebook. The stuff Eve was posting was “straight out of QAnon,” says Ady – a mixture of fake legalese about how masks and lockdowns breached international law, that Covid was an ‘engineered’ virus, and how restrictions were allowing the mass trafficking of children by global elites and Black Lives Matter (the two bodies apparently working in concert).

“Conspiracies are turning into reality by the day…” one of Eve’s posts warned. “How on earth could someone predict this if there weren’t an agenda.”

Another read: “Really ask yourself…why would a government want to vaccinate all people? Why is information regarding health and immune support being censored? Blue pill OR Red pill…We still have a choice…maybe not for long…”

Ady reached out with care and concern, and was received only hostility in response. “It was all ‘you can’t love me if you talk to me like this, I do not consent’. Using the language of rape survivor stuff…when all she means is wearing a fucking mask. I got completely shut down and initially she told me to never contact her again.”

Ady showed me Eve’s Facebook feed, and a lengthy scroll back shows a very different person. In 2019, Eve is celebrating Jacinda Ardern’s principled response to the Christchurch massacre and supporting better pay for teachers. There are posts about gratitude, mindfulness and the benefits of raw food. Even in March, she accepted the importance of the lockdown:

“Households for a lot of people are not safe unfortunately. I do hope victims of domestic violence are still able to get the support they need…For those of us safe at home, let’s raise our own vibration to create more love in the world – and while we are doing that donated to those who need a helping hand…”

Ady saw someone peaceful and even-handed (“we’d even managed to survive liking the same boy on occasion”) descend into a state of semi-permanent fury and agitation. What happened?

A post from a UK yoga and reiki centre illustrates the sort of conspiracy-minded thinking that is also taking hold in NZ new age circles (Facebook)

Trumpism and QAnon – and the conspiracy-minded anti-human trafficking movements that preceded them – first took hold among members of the American right: people who were already socially conservative, made more so by toxic propaganda. But in Aotearoa, such ideas have seized a substantial minority of the sorts who might call themselves “spiritual but not religious” – hippie summer festival goers, itinerant yoga practitioners, alternative lifestyle and medicine converts. People who may have picked up misguided information on vaccines or international politics, but were fundamentally decent.

Ady isn’t alone in noticing the change. When I asked for people’s experience with friends or family, I received several social media links showing the same ‘spirituality to Covid sceptic to Q and MAGA’ spiral.

The divide is starting to cast a shadow over the country’s tight-knit summer festival scene. Earlier this month Stuff’s Nina Hindmarsh reported on how Luminate, a biennial Tākaka Hill festival that bills itself as “a thriving festival of music, arts and inspiration” was being challenged by its own supporters for publishing a list of individuals who act as “crystal seeds of positive change”. The list included holocaust denier author David Icke, QAnon-aligned celeb chef Pete Evans, and London anti-lockdown broadcaster Brian Rose. Close to a hundred artists and public figures have since signed an open letter to the festival, asking that a line be drawn in the sand.

One of the supporters of the open letter is Mick, who has been involved in the South Island festival scene for years. “I love Luminate,” he says. “I’ve been going for years and the vibe is incredible. At night it’s all doof and drugs, but by day it’s eclectic music and entertainment and a lot of workshops.” He says it’s gut wrenching to see one of his favourite festivals succumb to such toxic beliefs.

A plainspoken Queenstown tradie, Mick challenges the stereotype of “spiritual” people as either millionaire Instagram grifters or clueless burnouts. He’s clear about where his personal and shared practice stops. “I do a lot of spiritual and metaphysical work without empirical proof to back up any of it. I don’t need empirical proof to know I’m deriving provable benefit in my life from practising it.

“But if it conflicts with science, science wins every time – if there’s empirical proof, it wins every time.”

Mick spoke to me because this year he’s found himself on the frontline of this pitched battle – between science and rational thought on one side, and dangerous conspiracy theorising on the other. He tries to engage conspiracy theorists in his community not to shame acquaintances who have many shared beliefs, but in an attempt to walk them back. He asked for his name be kept private because of the fragile state of the community right now. “I don’t to spend time talking it through with people and then get perceived as a snitch.”

He’s not blind to the faults of the festival scene before this year (“it’s easy to feel safe when you’re a big white guy with a beard”) but is quick to stress its mannaakitanga. “I really appreciated the spaces they create, to be yourself and to party, or not. A lot of damaged and troubled people would pass through, but there was an acceptance and willingness to make space and time for them.”

“Cuckoo beliefs” – the Icke-style notions of reptilian shapeshifters and a hollow moon – have long sat at the fringes, but could be laughed off. “It wasn’t really doing any harm, and even if you thought there was a world secret elite or were sceptical about vaccines, the people who thought that didn’t have the depth of commitment they have now. They weren’t drinking their own KoolAid.”

Like virtually everyone I spoke to who described a shift in their circles, Mick says he saw it take off at an astonishing pace during the first lockdown. “That absolutely did it to most people. It was the first time anyone in living memory has actually had their freedoms curtailed or any serious inconvenience.”

Daily reality did change overnight, and both livelihoods and social connections were abruptly curtailed. It hit the alternative lifestyle scene hard. With their backgrounds in performance, art, and non-mainstream therapy and medicine, this was effectively a community of gig economy workers, with all the economic and societal precariousness that entails.

It was in this uncertain environment that misinformation-heavy videos like Mikki Willis’s Plandemic emerged and became viral, often shared by people who other community members trusted implicitly, including friends they had partied and communed with for years. Next, Billy Te Kahika’s live Facebook videos began cropping up, even as New Zealand’s lockdown eased. As David Farrier has written, it was a local spin on the same US conspiracies, from someone who had gone down the rabbit hole very quickly himself.

Mick says that some acquaintances have wound up ideologically all over the map: against what remains of New Zealand’s restrictions, against Trump, but also posting QAnon-adjacent and Trump-supportive beliefs of an imminent reckoning for international elite paedophiles. Others have gone “all in and full noise”. A co-worker of Mick’s came back from the month in lockdown agitated about QAnon and all for a Trump-led purge, unable to talk about anything else and insisting that people watch with undivided attention the videos he shared.

A recent Facebook post by Australian celebrity chef and conspiracy theorist Pete Evans (Facebook)

After speaking with Mick, I got in touch with Victoria, a lawyer who works in public health. She has an aunt who has followed New Age practices since the 1980s and a cousin who works in the wellness industry in Northland, and Victoria no longer speaks to either. She says she made the decision to break off contact in response to their behaviour this year, but had seen the shift coming for a while.

She says that in 2019 she noticed “a real upswing in anti-5G, anti-semitic – specifically anti-George Soros – and anti-vaxx stuff doing the rounds, but that maybe hadn’t quite formed into a grand narrative, at least in New Zealand.”

Early this year her relatives started sharing gruesome videos about “post-birth abortions” being legalised in New Zealand. “The tone of these posts was highly agitated, desperate even. From March, I began seeing posts in ever increasing volume about Covid being only as bad as the flu, the WHO being run by evil and corrupt people, that Big Pharma want to vaccinate us with nanochips, and of course, that masks are a form of government oppression which suffocate you with carbon dioxide.”

Victoria says one of the major changes she’s noticed is that where once her relatives would pick and chose among theories relevant to their interests – on food safety or the paranormal, for example – now it’s a matter of all or nothing. “You either know the truth – all of it, because you’ve been “red-pilled” – or you are a sheeple and you know nothing.”

What she’s found most insidious of all is how the process re-aligned whānau with long-held beliefs about social justice and the environment. Her cousin had long ascribed to the sort of anti-state sentiment spawned by historical abuse which Tina Ngata so well described in her E-Tangata essay ‘The rise of Māori MAGA’. But once Covid hit he moved swiftly from supporting lockdown for the protection of vulnerable kaumātua to the full spectrum of anti-mask rants.

Meanwhile, Victoria’s aunt, a vegetarian who grows her own organic food, “now thinks that any environmental or social protections are a form of totalitarian control, and that the aim of all government action is to take things from individuals or simply control them.

“I’m not sure how this idea took root with her, but I suspect that in the hands of alt-right content creators, broader new age ideas about secretive malign forces operating behind the scenes became specific and concrete.”

Although Mick and Victoria differ in their personal views on new age and spiritual practices – he sees the upsides, she’s a little more sceptical – both agree that the community provided fertile ground for people to be recruited into conspiracies, and to ultimately act against their own interests.

“My sense is that these ideas – self-discovery, finding ‘one’s truth’, discovering hidden yet fundamental secrets about life – are all basically supporting strong notions of individualism, especially in opposition to authority, subjective over objective reality, and big, simple narratives of good over evil,” Victoria suggests.

This individualism didn’t have to always be negative, or at the expense of others. Those I talked to had previously seen spiritual practices help loved ones carve out a sense of narrative and identity for themselves. But these days there was a lot less “visualisation will help find what I really desire” and a lot more “evil forces are pulling the strings and I only I can see it”.

It could be that trauma and grief – which can hit with equal force the staunchest atheist and someone who believes in chakras and crystals – also plays a part. Many people who reached out to me had similar stories about how their friend or family member had taken a bereavement very hard in the six months leading up to Covid. Alex Moshakis’s 2018 deep-dive for The Guardian on flat-earthers feels quaint now – imagine if that was the dominant conspiracy theory, not one discrediting a virus that’s killed 1.27 million people? But his interviews zero in on the extent to which conspiracy theorists may have reached their insight after some kind of psychological crisis.

Anyone dealing with trauma at the start of 2020 was suddenly presented with an external world that, as it spun out of control and into panic, mirrored their internal state. Those who had taken solace in grand narratives before would have badly needed one now – and suddenly there was a lot of spare time and a lot of help to piece one together.

Up until now, the question of how tightly New Age and spiritual practitioners should be policed has been a vexed one. At one end, it’s appropriate to censure people like Pete Evans as a matter of consumer safety and protection (as Australian regulators have). At the other, a hectoring and know-it-all approach to “unscientific” beliefs makes adherents justifiably defensive, and marginalises those practising versions of their own cultural or Indigenous knowledge. In between is a whole of lot of tricky territory – at what point should views be challenged in communities so guided by an “each to their own” ethos?

Mick and like-minded acquaintances see the Luminate fracas as an inflection point. “A few of us within the scene have had enough and are as shedding light as we can,” he says. They’re now organising on Facebook to demand accountability from event organisers and other high-profile members of the community, while also raising issues like cultural appropriation that have cast a shadow on the scene for a while.

They might yet prevail. That’s because they’re thinking about the conspiracy theory issue in familiar terms: that the mystical can be a pathway to personal fulfilment – but also that the perception of a world of sinister elites and evil plans is that pathway’s shattered reflection. They’re hoping that by using their own language to speak to members, they can help their community reunite.

For some, though, it may be too late. As I filed this story, Pete Evans went from Trump merchandise to using Nazi imagery in memes directed to his quarter of a million followers. Meanwhile, Eve is back to work at her yoga business after lockdown but posting bait photos of her and her partner reading David Icke books, suggesting that even as New Zealand moves on from lockdown, she’s stayed entrenched in conspiracies.

“It gives her a lot of a sense that she knows what’s going on,” says Ady. “But she and I bonded when we were 19 over being messes and not knowing what’s going on. Instead, now she’s drawing on this idea of aggrieved power and sovereignty. Without the lockdown, the constant anger in her posts has gone – but I don’t know what sets her off next.”

* All names have been changed. 

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