Conspiracy theories and anti-intellectualism have been distinguishing attributes of the American right since at least the 1950s. The Age of Trump and American neofascism has amplified those worst impulses and transformed them into virtues and sources of pride for members of the Trump-Republican cult.
A new public opinion poll from the Economist/YouGov offers additional proof of the mass derangement that is afflicting TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse. Roughly 30 percent of Republicans say they believe it is "definitely" or "probably" true that the government has put microchips in the COVID-19 vaccines.
But today's conspiracy theories and related bad behavior in response to the pandemic and the new vaccines are part of a much older and deeper history. Jason Colavito is a professional skeptic, researcher and author whose essays have been featured at Slate and the New Republic. He has also offered expert commentary on the History Channel. His new book is "The Legends of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt."
In this conversation he explains how conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and vaccines can be traced back at least as far as the 1950s and Cold War-era fears of bodily pollution by Communism, as well as related anxieties about social change. Colavito also discusses the overlaps between coronavirus conspiracy theories and the QAnon worldview, whose obsession with "global elites" is a continuation of centuries-old antisemitic and racist tropes that now have more power because of the internet, social media and the right-wing echo chamber.
In this conversation Colavito also warns that facts and truth have little sway or influence over those deeply committed to conspiracy theories such as QAnon or who believe they are being tracked by microchips in coronavirus vaccines. Many such people, Colavito suggests, have suffered some type of psychological injury that has convinced them of their own self-importance, a narcissistic fantasy of living a life that "matters" in the grand narrative of history.
At the end of this conversation Colavito provides an update on the aftermath of the Pentagon's new UFO report and its anti-climactic findings.
Millions of Americans apparently believe that COVID vaccines are part of some great conspiracy which involves being tracked by microchips. They believe the vaccines were not properly tested and are dangerous to use, that the vaccines will rewrite their DNA or that the vaccines and COVID itself are part of some "New World Order" plot. How much of this paranoia is new and how much of it has been around for much longer?
The specifics of this conspiracy theory are unique to the COVID vaccine, but the underlying ideas are old ones. It goes all the way back to the Book of Revelation and the mark of the beast. Many evangelical and conservative groups have applied that label to basically any technology or medicine that they do not like. This includes everything from barcodes to vaccines. Through that lens almost anything can be interpreted as the mark of the beast because it is something Satanic or in the case of the vaccine, some type of evil government conspiracy.
One of the attributes of these particular types of conspiracies is that old elements keep getting recycled in new ways. For example, there is the classic scene in the movie "Dr. Strangelove," where the military general played by Sterling Hayden has locked himself in his office after starting what he hopes is going to be a nuclear war. He's sitting there telling this British officer, played by Peter Sellers, that the Communists are trying to pollute Americans' "precious bodily fluids." That is the same type of thinking we are now seeing with the COVID vaccines and the conspiracies surrounding them.
These claims go back to the 1950s and 1960s with the John Birchers and their pseudo-science conspiracies about bodily purity and how the Communists are trying to infiltrate not just American culture and society, but also our very bodies to corrupt us from the inside out. Conspiracies about fluoride in the water are part of that imaginary as well. Ultimately, with these types of conspiracies it comes down to keeping out all of the hostile, foreign, unwanted theologies and beliefs that are somehow manifesting at a physical level.
There are the conspiracy theories. Popular culture in turn reflects these conspiracy theories. And then the people who believe in the conspiracy theories draw on popular culture as "proof" that the conspiracy theories are true. How do you make sense of that dynamic?
Because it is a feedback loop there really isn't a clear beginning and a clear end. It's almost like a merry-go-round that keeps going in a circle. But it is also a spiral that goes up and up and up. That is really the only direction it can go, because each new iteration of the conspiracy theory builds on pop culture. Popular culture then takes the current conspiracy theories and escalates them and then the cycle continues with new conspiracy theories.
The feedback loop is very hard to break, especially so in a culture such as America that is decentralized, and where there is no strong cultural authority who can impose a counter-narrative to break the cycle.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, one of the reasons those "bodily fluids" conspiracies did not take hold of the culture as much was because the media was more centralized. There were relatively few outlets, compared to now, for sharing conspiracy theories. There were also gatekeepers who would say, "This is ridiculous. We're not going to publish this, or if we do mention it, we're going to say how ridiculous it is." That limited the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories outside of the crank pamphlets and tracts and zines that promoted it to a small audience. There really wasn't a platform for circulating conspiracy theories beyond that subculture.
But today, there aren't the gatekeepers that there used to be. So even if, say, NBC or The New York Times says that they're not going to give credence to some conspiracy theory or aren't going to cover it, you still have 101 different methods for getting it out there. And once it starts getting shared across social media, there just isn't any method for saying, "No, this is ridiculous," and shoving it out of the cultural conversation.
Now the very act of people talking about something, however ridiculous, justifies other media making the decision to talk about it too.
Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms as well as news outlets are putting disclaimers on, or event outright banning, disinformation and lies about the coronavirus and other subjects. In the minds of the conspiracy theorists, aren't these bans and warnings just more proof that their claims are real?
It certainly can work that way. We see that across a wide range of conspiracy beliefs, and not just vaccines, but also election conspiracies, UFO conspiracies, even things like psychic powers and ghosts. Whenever you have authority figures saying no — to a certain type of believer, the very fact that somebody is saying, "No, it isn't true," becomes proof that you're onto something and there is some kind of vast conspiracy standing behind it all. When media outlets and the like declare something to be a lie or disinformation, the narrative among conspiracists is that no government entity or other powerful outlet would issue those denials unless they were afraid that there was some truth that they don't want you to know.
What is the relationship between the serious conspiracists and popular culture? Do they go to movies or watch TV shows, for example, and see fictional events as evidence for the conspiracy in the real world? What about their ability to engage in reality testing?
There are a significant number of high-profile people in those conspiracy communities who genuinely think they're getting secret messages through movies, or that the plots of movies are controlled by higher powers in order to disclose hidden truths or confirm conspiratorial beliefs. Others in these communities believe that Hollywood is producing conspiracy or science fiction movies to prepare the public for further revelations about aliens or what have you.
It's scary that the line between fact and fiction, for a great number of people in the conspiracy world, is very thin. It's hard to have a rational conversation with somebody whose evidence is, "I saw it in a movie and it's a secret conspiracy and the aliens are behind it all. And this is how I know it: Because they're channeling it into my mind through subliminal messages in movies."
It's difficult to form a rational discourse with people who don't share the same basis in reality or the rules of logic, reason and evidence. And it's a really difficult thing for society as a whole when you have a growing number of people who are living in a sort of fantasy world where their ideology changes everything they see into evidence of a conspiracy.
When people in the conspiracy community and elsewhere talk about the vaccines as part of a "globalist plot" or as evidence for the "New World Order," what are they really saying? What are the underlying beliefs?
In many cases, what they are doing is adapting old conspiracy theories — many of them antisemitic in origin — to fit a modern worldview. These conspiracy theories are helping the true believers to navigate, however imperfectly, a world where they are no longer the center of the narrative. A lot of what we're seeing is deep distrust of a changing world. And so to make sense of it, they're trying to hold onto the sort of mid-century sitcom fantasy of America that never really existed, but is the imagined America that they grew up with and that they had hoped to live in all their lives.
When members of these communities propose conspiracy theories about "the elites" or aliens or "the Jews" or some other secret group that is trying to destroy America and take over the world, it is really an attempt to cling to the way things were before the country experienced demographic and cultural change.
What is the role of the Internet and right-wing disinformation media such as Fox News in mainstreaming these conspiracy theories?
It basically becomes propaganda. What happens is that a person is exposed to the same message repeatedly across multiple outlets. Over time the conspiracy theories take on the veneer of truth. That's the danger of having an entire media ecosystem that circulates and repeats the same bad ideas repeatedly. It reinforces lies, misinformation and bad ideas and makes it all seem true, just because so many people are talking about it and repeating it as though it were in fact true.
With the vaccine conspiracy theory and the lie that they are delivery systems for tracking microchips, how would believers respond to the following intervention: "You have a tracking device in your pocket already. It is called a cell phone." Or here is another intervention: "Why would anyone want to track you? Why are you so important that the government would care about you?"
When you ask such people questions like that, you're really puncturing the heart of the narrative, and that narrative is one that says you are important. You are a participant in a grand historical narrative. You are part of this world-historical event. If you take that away from them and say, "Well, maybe you're not in the center of it, maybe you are just on the sidelines or a bystander," then you are creating feelings of upset and anger. Most people want to believe that we are the heroes of our own story. We want to think that we are in the middle of the narrative and that our actions have meaning and consequence beyond ourselves.
Therefore, when people believe in conspiracy theories that put them in the middle of the action, where they are somehow important enough to be tracked, or important enough that someone is working to stop them from reaching their full potential, it is a way of reinforcing their own ego and self-importance. Many people who are deeply involved in conspiracy culture have professional, emotional, or social frustrations and are grasping for explanations about why they aren't getting the things that they want out of life.
What has happened in the aftermath of the Pentagon UFO report?
There is not a lot of new information about UFOs per se. There is, however, a lot of new UFO programming that's available. Netflix has a new UFO documentary series out right now. J.J. Abrams has a new UFO documentary series forthcoming on Showtime. We are witnessing the transformation of the UFO phenomenon from a scientific question into a money-making opportunity.
What about the prominent public advocates for the Pentagon UFO report? They had their few weeks or months of fame. What do they do next?
I wish I had good answer for it. Chris Mellon has put out a statement on his website basically begging for cash, demanding that the government fund UFO research, and making it plain that he is interested in making sure that he and his friends get in on it. Lou Elizondo is on the UFO circuit right now. In fact, he's doing a UFO conference that's selling $250 tickets. Many of the people who are begging Congress to appropriate money to hunt UFOs apparently subscribe to a trickle-down theory, where they believe that some of that money will end up in their pockets.