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The Rise of the Respectable Conspiracy Theory

COVID, Trump, Brexit—everybody’s had something to break their brains in recent years and some people may never recover.

· 14 min read
The Rise of the Respectable Conspiracy Theory
Carole Cadwalladr speaks at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15th – 19th, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Marla Aufmuth/TED Flickr (CC license 2.0)

The Guardian journalist George Monbiot recently wrote about his disappointment with Russell Brand, a comedian who has fallen down several rabbit holes in recent years and can now be found on the YouTube-substitute Rumble fulminating about Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum, Big Pharma, Monsanto, Anthony Fauci, and other such bogeymen. Monbiot is understandably dismayed by all this, particularly since he once held Brand in high regard.

I once admired Russell Brand. But his grim trajectory shows us where politics is heading | George Monbiot
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Brand does indeed seem to have lost the plot, but Monbiot could not resist slipping in a conspiracy theory of his own when he claimed that “the Great Reset conspiracy theory was conceived by a staffer at the Heartland Institute, a US lobby group that has promoted climate denial and other billionaire-friendly positions.” The Great Reset conspiracy theory portrays COVID-19 as a fake disease and the pandemic as a manufactured crisis designed to allow global elites to abolish democracy, private property and—for some reason—farming. This is all supposedly the work of the World Economic Forum (WEF), whose annual meetings in Davos can be fairly described as gatherings of the global elite and whose founder, Klaus Schwab, resembles Dr Evil. In June 2020, Schwab published a dull pamphlet about “stakeholder capitalism” titled “The Great Reset.” Things snowballed from there.

Monbiot’s evidence that the resulting conspiracy theory was devised by “a US lobby group” comes from an article by Naomi Klein, which claims that “the earliest alarmism about the Great Reset came from the Heartland Institute.” This is a more modest claim than Monbiot’s and Klein supports her claim with an article published in late June 2020. This was not actually the first example of “alarmism” about the WEF’s Great Reset initiative—conspiracy theorists had already picked up on it. The article was indeed written by a staffer at the Heartland Institute, but his concerns were confined to the “massive new government programs and far-reaching policies” he suspected would be necessary to fulfil the WEF’s ambitions for the climate. The article is somewhat overwrought but has little relationship to the Great Reset conspiracy theory espoused by the likes of Russell Brand. And yet in Monbiot’s telling, the whole conspiracy theory was “conceived” by the Heartland Institute. This is itself a conspiracy theory.

Those who are familiar with Klein’s work will recognise the idea of global elites manufacturing or exploiting a crisis to push through their radical economic agenda. Monbiot calls the Great Reset conspiracy theory “a bastardisation of her shock doctrine hypothesis.” In fact, it is a pure shock-doctrine hypothesis and only slightly more risible than Klein’s batshit-crazy explanation for the Iraq war, but since Klein is a high-status progressive, she can get away with this kind of thing. Without a hint of irony, she followed The Shock Doctrine with This Changes Everything, in which she argued that climate change was such a major crisis that politicians had no choice but to implement the radical Marxist policies she had always espoused.

In the same article in which he lambasts Brand, Monbiot asserts that “Almost all successful conspiracy theories originate with or land with the far right.” But this simply isn’t true. An interesting study published last year concluded that neither the Left nor the Right are systematically biased towards conspiracy theories. Based on 20 surveys conducted in the US between 2012 and 2021, the authors found that around a third of the conspiracy theories they reviewed were more attractive to Republicans than to Democrats, a third were more attractive to Democrats than to Republicans, and the rest were non-partisan. Right-wingers were particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 while left-wingers were drawn to conspiracy theories about Donald Trump. Right-wingers tended to be more anti-vax when it came to COVID-19 but not when it came to MMR. Republicans were more likely to believe that global warming is a hoax and the Sandy Hook massacre was faked while Democrats were more likely to believe that the Moon landings were faked and that OJ Simpson was framed.

Pearson correlations between beliefs in conspiracy theories and partisan and ideological self-identification. Horizontal bands represent 95 percent confidence intervals, two-tailed tests. (Source: Enders et al, 2022)

Some of the best-known conspiracy theories, including the JFK assassination, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 being an “inside job,” were not associated with political views, although they may have been in the past. The authors make the important observation that widely believed conspiracy theories sometimes start out on the Left or Right and become bipartisan over time. Neither the 9/11 “truth” movement nor the JFK conspiracy originated on the far-Right. On the contrary, they most appealed to people who hated George W. Bush and couldn’t face the reality of Kennedy being murdered by a Marxist, respectively.

Not unpredictably, comments about this study on social media took two forms. There were those who insisted that some of the theories reviewed should not have been included because they were true and there were those who accused the researchers of not including conspiracy theories they associated with their political opponents. The problem is nobody believes that their own crackpot theories for how the world works are conspiracy theories. If they did, they would stop believing them. Conspiracy theories are for other people—gullible people who belong to the outgroup. They are conspiracy theorists. We are free thinkers who do our own research and think critically.

Conspiracy theories in general are low status—as David Aaronovitch argues in Voodoo Histories, they are a way for the marginalised and uneducated to feel superior and perceptive. And yet there are a number of baseless conspiracy theories that are considered to be almost a given in high-status discourse. In Britain, there is no stigma attached to people who believe that the Conservatives are planning to privatise the NHS. You have nothing to fear from claiming that the Russian government somehow brought Brexit about.

Some high-status conspiracy theories are so fleeting that they barely lodge in the memory. For example, on March 16th, 2020, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly, Boris Johnson advised people to stay away from pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, and theatres, but did not order these venues to close. The obvious question was why not close them by law? To this, the online sleuths of the British Left had an answer—it was all about insurance. If Johnson had ordered the venues to close, the insurance industry would have had to pay out and Johnson’s chums in the insurance game wouldn’t like that. And what’s this? Johnson’s register of interests shows that he once received £25,540 plus VAT to speak at the British Insurance Brokers Organisation. Join the dots!

It was all the sheerest nonsense, of course, but that didn’t stop it going viral on Twitter. Rishi Sunak was already working on a vast support package for businesses and Johnson shut down the hospitality industry by law four days later. In any case, insurance brokers are middlemen who lose nothing when insurance companies pay out.

Six months earlier, the Byline Times had come up with the theory that Boris Johnson was planning to crash the pound by taking the UK out of the EU without a deal at the end of October so his friends in the hedge-fund industry could make a fortune out of shorting the currency. If this far-fetched notion had been confined to an online anti-Brexit news outlet it might not have qualified as a high-status conspiracy theory, but it was taken seriously by Johnson’s own sister, Rachel, and by the former Chancellor Philip Hammond who wrote an article for the Times in which he claimed that Johnson was “backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit—and there is only one outcome that works for them: a crash-out no-deal Brexit that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” If this was the plan, it went terribly wrong. The UK did not leave the EU in October 2019, the pound did not crash, inflation did not soar, and when the country did leave the Union in January 2020, it was with a deal. The theory was swiftly memory-holed.

Both of these theories have been all but forgotten, but they dominated UK political Twitter for a day or two. They come and go, these upper-normie conspiracy theories, but no one’s reputation is damaged by propagating them. Tom Watson was recently elevated to the House of Lords despite having been the figurehead of a deranged movement aimed at “exposing” a nonexistent VIP paedophile ring at the heart of government, supposedly involving the former MP Harvey Proctor and former Home Secretary Leon Brittan. Based on the fraudulent account of a liar and bona fide paedophile named Carl Beech, who used the pseudonym “Nick,” Watson used parliamentary privilege to call Brittan “as close to evil as any human being could get.” Brittan died of cancer before his name was cleared.

“Nick’s” claims were also energetically promoted by the tub-thumping radio presenter James O’Brien. O’Brien is LBC’s equivalent of GB News’ Neil Oliver, muttering darkly about the deep state. The difference is that Neil Oliver is widely considered to be a risible figure as he stares at the viewer with dark-session energy and outlines his latest paranoid beliefs about the New World Order. O’Brien, on the other hand, has been described by the New Statesman as “the conscience of liberal Britain” and has over a million followers on Twitter.

When someone threw a milkshake at Nigel Farage in 2019, O’Brien suggested that it was a false-flag attack to distract the public from the Brexit Party “laundering dirty foreign money.” When people queued for up to 24 hours to see Queen Elizabeth lying in state, he worried aloud that “somebody somewhere has very deliberately conceived a plan to have hundreds of thousands of people snaking through London visibly, publicly, and performatively queueing to pay their respects to the late Queen.”

The cardiologist Aseem Malhotra is currently low status because he makes false claims about mRNA vaccines and believes that the world is in the grip of the “psychopathic entities.” When he was making hysterical and dubious claims about sugar and carbohydrates a few years ago, he was relatively high status. As a Guardian columnist, George Monbiot is obviously high status and he was livid when Double Down News, an online media outlet he has often made videos for, gave a platform to Aseem Malhotra to air his anti-mRNA views.

Yet only a few months earlier, Monbiot had produced a video for the same platform in which he described Liz Truss as “a kind of Manchurian candidate put in place by dark-money lobby groups on behalf of oligarchs.” The ultimate goal of this plot, he confidently asserted, was to create a “massive economic crisis,” thereby creating a “huge squeeze on public finances” which the government would use as an excuse for privatising the NHS. This is a wild conspiracy theory by any standards and it is not surprising to see it on the same platform as an anti-vax video. Monbiot was surprised, however, because he is so far down his own rabbit hole that he cannot see the similarities.

Of all the high-status conspiracy theories in Britain, belief in the imminent privatisation of the NHS is the most widespread. Your face may already be turning purple with rage from me describing it as such, but what else can you call a belief that is highly implausible, supported by no evidence, and would require secretive collaboration at the top of government? The Conservative Party has been in power for two-thirds of the NHS’s history. Despite supposedly itching to sell it off, they have never made the slightest move to do so. A few of their MPs may believe, as I do, that healthcare run by a state leviathan will always produce poor outcomes, but they will not do anything about it because they are politicians and their priority is getting re-elected. The NHS is, insanely, the most cherished institution in the country. Privatising it would not only stop the Conservatives winning the next election. It would stop them ever winning an election again.

An adjunct to this conspiracy theory, often buttressed by a quote from Noam Chomsky, is that the Conservatives are deliberately “defunding” or “running down” the NHS in order to sell it off. In 2010, the government spent less than £150 billion on healthcare. In 2021, it spent £229 billion. Spending a lot more money on something is a funny way of running it down, and running something down is an odd thing to do if you are planning to sell it off. There has never been any evidence that any government has any intention of privatising the NHS. They have every political incentive not to privatise it and if they were planning on privatising it, they would have done so by now.

As a theory, it is about as credible as 5G causing COVID-19, and yet it is virtually taken for granted in many circles. It was at the very heart of the 2019 general election. Not since the Zinoviev letter in 1924 has fake news played such a large role in a British election than when Jeremy Corbyn claimed to have damning evidence of a “plot” to sell off the NHS in a US trade deal with Donald Trump. Brandishing a confidential government document, he claimed to have uncovered the Conservatives’ “secret agenda.”

Needless to say, the document showed no such thing—it only mentioned the NHS four times in its 451 pages and only in relation to pharmaceuticals, and the NHS remains very much owned by the state. But that did not stop the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party from rowing in behind the conspiracy theory. The unredacted document had been leaked on Reddit several weeks earlier in what Reddit concluded was “part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.”

This is ironic as Russian interference in elections features heavily in high-status conspiracy theories. In Britain, the doyenne of the Russian conspiracy theory is Carole Cadwalladr, a journalist who rose from obscurity after the Brexit vote in 2016 to reveal … what, exactly? Seven years and multiple awards later it is still not clear what she is investigating. The articles she wrote that were specifically highlighted by the judges of the Orwell Prize, which she won in 2018, are remarkably insubstantial.

The longest of these is almost a stream of consciousness, making tenuous links between Brexit, Cambridge Analytica, Trump, US billionaires, Arron Banks, Nigel Farage, and Dominic Cummings before concluding that the EU referendum result was “Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook.” It includes a quote from Prof David Miller, described by Cadwalladr as “an authority in psyops and propaganda,” who was another high-status conspiracy theorist until his obsession with “Zionists” led to him being sacked by the University of Bristol in 2021.

Today, Cadwalladr is a conspiracy theorist without a theory. For years, she placed her hope in a string of investigations conducted by the National Crime Agency, the Electoral Commission, the UK Information Commissioner and, in the US, Robert Mueller, all of which came to nothing from her point of view. The Electoral Commission fined Leave campaigners for breaching election spending rules, but it also fined Remain campaigners for the same reason and, most damagingly for Cadwalladr, it concluded that Cambridge Analytica did not work on Leave.EU’s campaign. Facebook was fined for sharing data with Cambridge Analytica but the Information Commissioner found no evidence that British citizens’ data were among them.

Even Cadwalladr’s admirers struggle to summarise her working hypothesis, other than that Facebook employs targeted advertising and that the Russian government engages in a chaotic form of cyber-war with the West. She helped inspire a Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, which, like her journalism, falls for Cambridge Analytica’s sales pitch and ultimately goes nowhere. None of this has prevented her from winning at least 10 awards for her journalism and achieving an almost saint-like status among her supporters. Even the UK’s biweekly satirical and current-affairs magazine Private Eye, which would mock her mercilessly if she had different politics, goes easy on her.

Arron Banks, a businessman and co-founder of Leave.EU, sued Cadwalladr for defamation after she accused him of lying about his relationship with the Russian government. Despite winning on appeal, Banks’s case was described as a “failed legal action” by the Guardian, and Cadwalladr herself claimed victory, announcing on Twitter that “Everything I did, my journalist processes, the public interest of my journalism, the reporting of Banks’s Kremlin links has been categorically upheld by this judgment.” Cadwalladr had already made public apologies to Banks for the Russia allegation and for other untruths but neither this nor the fact that she had dropped the “truth defence” in court, nor even that she was due to pay damages for losing a defamation case could persuade her supporters that she had been wrong.

There can be little doubt that Brexit sent some people crazy. Who can forget Lord Andrew Adonis, once considered the blandest of centrists, demanding answers from the BBC about what he called “the fake vicar scandal”? Perhaps you have forgotten, so let me remind you. It was a minor conspiracy theory of Adonis’s own invention that stemmed from his mind erupting at seeing a female vicar on a Newsnight panel praising Theresa May’s Brexit deal. With a little digging, Adonis discovered that she had appeared as an extra in a number of films, including a villager in Macbeth and a funfair attendant in Pudsey the Dog: The Movie. Rather than accept that she was a vicar who did a bit of acting, Adonis concluded that she was an actor hired by the BBC to pretend to be a Leave voter.

Replying to one of Adonis’s many tweets about “Vicargate,” Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis wrote: “To have got to a place where you could chose to believe that enough to write it—is deeply worrying.” There are, as Donald Trump would say, many such cases. If COVID-19 instigated a wave of conspiracy theories on the Right, Boris Johnson’s election victory had the same effect on the Left and Brexit caused many centrists to have a meltdown. Everybody’s had something to break their brains in recent years and some people may never recover.

Many of the classic conspiracy theories arise from a sense of disbelief. A simple car crash seemed to be an inadequate ending to the Princess Diana soap opera. JFK was too important to have been killed by someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald. 9/11 was too enormous to have been mere terrorism. The logistics of putting a man on the Moon were too mind-blowing to have been achieved in 1969.

COVID-19 and lockdown delivered a psychic shock on a greater scale than any of these events. That fallible politicians were grappling with the extraordinary problem of dealing with a deadly new virus seemed an inadequate explanation when one could instead believe that it was a false flag to sell vaccines and install a world government (or, from the opposite perspective, that the government had a policy of culling the elderly).

The election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU were similarly shocking to those who had previously regarded those developments as unthinkable. As we retreat into our echo chambers, there is a growing inability to even acknowledge the existence of opposing views, let alone consider them valid. When everyone you know agrees with you, it comes as a shock when the votes are counted and you realise that your side is outnumbered by a basket of deplorables. When something seems unbelievable, the temptation is to simply disbelieve it and reach for alternative explanations.

Conspiracy theories are, in every sense, for losers. When your side is losing in ways that you find inexplicable, extraordinary explanations become appealing. The centrists and the sensibles who hold high-status opinions went a long time without losing, but in the past decade have suffered several major defeats. At the same time, conspiratorial thinking has entered the mainstream like never before. Is this a coincidence? A conspiracy theorist would say that there is no such thing as a coincidence and, in this instance, they would be right.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that David Miller was fired by Bath University. He was in fact fired by the University of Bristol. Apologies for the error.

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