How ‘Conspirituality’ Wrecked The Wellness World And Destroyed Our Response To COVID-19

image: AFP/William West

by Ben Cohen

Over the past year, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the various conspiracy theories that have taken off during the Coronavirus pandemic. I have also studied the personalities involved in creating and spreading these conspiracy theories, and have come to some alarming conclusions.

I believe that society is experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis that is manifesting itself through these increasingly rabid conspiracy theory movements. There has also been a convergence of far right conspiracy theory and New Age spiritualism — or “Conspirituality” — that is widening the reach of these once fringe communities.

The consequences for society are grave, and it is vital we understand how this happened, and what we can do about it.

The conspiracy coup

The attempted coup in Washington earlier this month was driven almost entirely by ‘QAnon’ inspired conspiracy theories promoted by far right media and New Age charlatans.

From Trump’s false claim that Biden had stolen the election to the Deep State pedophile rings in government and rabid Covid-19 denialism, the mob of protestors genuinely believed they were engaging in an epic war between Good and Evil.

This so called war would rid the government of the Satanic Democrats, free millions of children in slavery, end the “plandemic”, and bring back the savior of Western civilization, Donald Trump, to his rightful position as leader of the free world. Q, who is supposedly a government insider posting cryptic messages in far right internet chat rooms, is central to all of this. Q’s followers had been waiting for “the storm” — an event where all of the prophecies would come true.

Atlantic journalist Adrienne LaFrance spent considerable amount of time investigating the QAnon phenomenon, told NPR back in August of 2020 that:

“The basic idea is that we are in the calm before the storm. The storm is the moment where Trump will, as a sort of savior figure, come in and initiate mass arrests or otherwise sort of comeuppance for this evil cabal and that on the other side of the storm is a great awakening for society and to sort of put the country back on track in Q’s terms.”

Thousands of Q followers believed this and stormed the Capitol building on January 6th in an attempt to help Trump fulfill his mission. The coup failed, but theory still held that Trump would still turn things around. Lin Wood, a Trump lawyer and prominent conspiracy theorist continued posting on Parler promising all was actually going to plan. His posts were indicative of the paranoid, fantastical thinking prevalent in Q communities:

What “evidence” Wood was referring to is anyone’s guess, but unsurprisingly no information was revealed, Trump did not have anyone arrested, he did not eliminate income tax, and has now flown off to Florida where he is currently preparing for his impeachment trial in the Senate.

Where did this all come from?

Since the 1960s and 70s, New Age and wellness communities have been plagued with fraudulent characters making unproven claims to their often highly susceptible followers. Based on the concept of personal transformation and healing for a ‘new age’ of human awakening, these communities have incorporated a hodgepodge of spiritual concepts and health treatments into a broader philosophies that have been commercialized by budding entrepreneurs.

New Age grifters have started dangerous cults selling spiritual enlightenment, advocated drinking industrial bleach as a miracle cure for AIDS, and hawked crystals as an antidote to cancer. Wellness advocates have tapped into many of these concepts, selling dubious nutritional supplements and ‘personal growth’ courses that promise similar transformation and personal healing.

The Coronavirus pandemic appears to have magnified the problems in these communities intensely, and they are adopting wilder, more fanatical beliefs about the origins of the disease, how to treat it, or even whether the disease exists at all.

On the other end of the spectrum, the US has a long, violent history of extremist right wing politics dating back to its inception. From slavery to Jim Crow, right wing politics in America has always been synonymous with virulent racism and oppression. While considerably better than it was 50 years ago, this problem hasn’t gone away. Grotesque theories about racial superiority and black criminality still exist, but White Supremacist movements have become less organized, more fragmented, and have no real leadership.

The election of Donald Trump changed this dynamic, and militant right wing groups rallied around a president who had run on a ticked of overt White Nationalism and virulent xenophobia. The past four years have seen a truly frightening resurgence of White Supremacist ideology and extreme acts of violence. Hate crimes against minorities have skyrocketed, and White Supremacist groups are now the leading threat of terrorism in America.

The onset of the Coronavirus pandemic and the need for massive societal cooperation appears to have created more militancy in right wing circles, and more fantastical conspiracy theories.

Fueled by conservative media outlets that have engaged in Covid denial and anti-mask wearing propaganda, right wing political movements have incorporated virulent conspiracy theories that not only equate public safety measures with socialism, but far more fringe mythologies birthed in a far right chat room on the internet. The most prominent of these theories is QAnon, a truly bizarre concoction of paranoid fantasy that took off in late 2017.

The great convergence

Through social media, conspiracy theories from across the political spectrum have been cross pollinating at a truly alarming pace. QAnon principles have now infiltrated New Age communities, and anti-vaxx, 5g, Covid-19 hysteria have infiltrated far right communities. This cross pollination has created new, far broader base of conspiracy adherents across the political spectrum.

“Proponents of Covid conspiracies have found ready-made audiences in the QAnon crowd and vice versa,” Chloe Colliver, senior policy director at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank focused on extremism, told the BBC.

“The potential audiences for dangerous disinformation are growing and harder to isolate and contain,” Colliver continued. “They are becoming so inter-connected that it is hard for tech platforms at this late stage to now get a grip on limiting the reach of potentially dangerous disinformation.”

The inter-connectedness of these once disparate communities and their ability to propagate disinformation is fast becoming one of the biggest threats to society in modern history.

Down the rabbit hole

Following conspiracy theorists online and reading through their chat threads can be quite a destabilizing experience. Many of these theories are disturbingly filled with anti-semitic innuendo — a major theme in historic extremist political ideology. Conversations routinely involve secret Democratic sex cabals, Satanic liberal media (read: Jewish) figures, and the harvesting of children’s blood (another age-old antisemitic myth).

These conspiracy theories have permeated Martial Arts, fitness and wellness communities. I have personally seen several friends absorb many of the themes prevalent in QAnon communities and Wellness communities, unwittingly sharing memes that have no basis in reality.

Witnessing this happen in real time across multiple social media platforms is to have a particularly frightening lesson in history. While the mediums were obviously far less efficient, one can see how fascistic movements must have spread throughout Europe prior to World War II. Disinformation is incredibly difficult to contain once it gets out.

Social media has made the job of conspiracy theorists infinitely easier, and has radically changed how quickly disinformation can spread. The more disinformation there is, the more susceptible and paranoid the public becomes. It is this cycle that has such a destabilizing effect on society, and it has opened up huge opportunities for charismatic charlatans to exploit their followers even more.

Enter the Wellness Gurus

As the Coronavirus pandemic spread, many prominent wellness gurus went through a very bizarre metamorphosis. They became obsessed with vaccine conspiracies, Bill Gates, child sex trafficking, 5g cell towers (they apparently cause human cells to excrete the Coronavirus), Antifa, and the “Socialist” Democrats.

Mikki Willis, a film maker and respected figure in the wellness community is central to much of the disinformation metastasizing through New Age communities. Willis released “Plandemic”, a documentary featuring the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits who made dozens of thoroughly debunked claims about Covid-19. Amongst other discredited beliefs, Mikovits claims that the virus was likely created in a lab (there is no credible evidence to suggest this), and that masks “activate” the virus (the exact opposite is true). She also states and that head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci is responsible for millions of deaths during the AID epidemic (he was not).

“Plandemic” was booted off of Youtube and all major social media platforms, but it retained cult like status in New Age and wellness communities, leading many wellness gurus to capitalize on its claims.

Kelly Brogan, a controversial psychiatrist is a classic example of this emboldened New Age disinformation influencer. Brogan, a featured Goop contributor and doyenne of the alternative healthcare space made a name for herself by eschewing traditional psychiatry and selling controversial detox programs to get people off of antidepressants.

Brogan has impeccable credentials (a degree from MIT in Neuroscience and has certificates in psychiatry through the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology) and her theories on holistic health before the pandemic were mostly evidence based.

Then Covid-19 happened and Brogan’s social media postings became increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial. Brogan began sharing ludicrous anti-vaxx nonsense, anti-mask wearing propaganda, and posts accusing Bill Gates of genocide:

In a phenomenal piece by cult-dynamic researcher and host of the podcast ‘Conspirituality’, Matthew Remski spoke to members of Brogan’s online psychiatric group ‘Vital Life Project’ who were deeply troubled by Brogan’s full scale embrace of the most repellent conspiracy theories:

I interviewed six members of that group who were dismayed by Brogan’s strange turn. According to those I’ve interviewed, a significant portion of Brogan’s online clients have struggled with long-term psychiatric conditions. They didn’t initially sign up for Covid conspiracism, but for tips on medication tapering with the help of a paleo-type diet, Kundalini yoga, and daily coffee enemas. After Brogan’s content began to change, some of them turned away and found each other through a private Facebook group.

Some were afraid of the impacts of alt-health conspiracism on people who might struggle with their grasp on reality. They were concerned that some VLP members might be easily sucked down Covid-denialist rabbit holes, having been primed by Brogan to view themselves as lightning rods for society’s hidden illnesses.

Countless other wellness figures joined Brogan in sharing Covid conspiracy theories, anti-mask wearing propaganda, and shaming of anyone taking the pandemic seriously. Those who wore masks were “sheep” allowing the government and big pharma to control their minds. A former personal trainer friend of mine insisted he would not be affected by the Coronavirus because he “took full responsibility” for his health. He believed serious illness only hit those struggling with weight or poor immune system issues and was their own fault.

This became a familiar theme in conspirituality circles — a tactic cohost at the Conspirutuality podcast Derek Beres notes is often used to sell supplements. In an exposé of comedian and “life coach” JP Sears, Beres summarizes Sears’s approach as follows:

Masks are a method for keeping us separate; public health measures like lockdowns are government outreach; strong immune systems are key for fighting a virus that he claims the media has blown out of proportion — and what he sells — a range of products marketed to, surprise, boost your immune system.

It is hard to discern the exact motivations behind many of these wellness gurus’ disdain for evidence based medicine, but if you are telling your clients not to wear masks during a global pandemic, their health and wellbeing probably isn’t part of it.

Many of these wellness gurus have become increasingly prominent in Alt Right and QAnon circles. Mikki Willis, for example, joined the coup attempt in Washington, where he called called the violent storming of the Capitol “a beautiful thing to see”.

The mental health crisis

Psychologist Brielle A. Marino (Psy.D.) notes in a fascinating piece in Psychology Today that belief in conspiracy theories is almost certainly correlated “to psychotic processes”. She writes:

A primary symptom of psychosis is delusional thinking. Delusions are defined as false beliefs. They can be paranoid, grandiose, or persecutory in nature, however, they all share their tendency to be unwavering in the face of contrasting evidence. This type of poor reality testing is also found amongst individuals who hold strong beliefs in conspiracy theories.

Other commonalities amongst individuals with psychosis and those who hold conspiratorial beliefs are a tendency to be anxious, to hold other paranormal and paranoid beliefs, to engage in monological thinking, and to overly endorse their own intuition/causal attributions rather than engage in analytical and rational problem-solving. The jumping-to-conclusions bias, which is well-documented in individuals with psychosis, has also been attributed to conspiratorial believers (Drinkwater, Dagnall, & Parker, 2012).

When vast swathes of the country are buying into paranoid, grandiose, and persecutory delusions, their proliferation can be viewed as a symptom of collective underlying mental health conditions. As Gabriel Andrade from the College of Medicine at Ajman University writes:

People with paranoid ideation are unlikely to accept that a virus that has turned so devastating, is simply a natural phenomenon. People with paranoid personalities are far more likely to believe the world is an evil place, and therefore, any catastrophe as big as the current pandemic, had to be designed by evil people.

The pandemic has massively exacerbated these underlying mental health conditions, making the conspiracy theories far more deranged and the adherents far more militant. It is a vicious cycle that is threatening to spiral out of control unless there is a dramatic intervention.

Solutions

There is no one solution to this crisis, but there are clear steps we can take to reduce the proliferation of conspiracy theories and treat the underlying cause.

Firstly, right wing terror groups and individuals engaging in violent activities must be, monitored, broken up and jailed. Law enforcement agencies must reformed and given ample resources to tackle this growing threat. The Biden administration is taking this threat incredibly seriously, but years of neglect and denial from the Trump years means there is a long way to go.

Secondly tech platform must do more to curb the spread of conspiracy theories. They have done too little too late, and without robust regulation they have no real incentive to do much about it. If tech companies were held liable for the disinformation they have helped spread they would do far more to clamp down on the groups spreading them.

Thirdly, those exploiting conspiracy theories for monetary gain should be held accountable for their actions. Charlatans like Mikki Willis have done immeasurable damage to society with “Plandemic” and he should be held to account either through criminal or civil litigation. If you lie to people during a deadly pandemic, you should pay the price for it.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, huge investments must be made in mental health care. The US in particular has a deeply dysfunctional, disjointed, and underfunded mental health care infrastructure that is in dire need of reform. Joe Biden’s plans are a welcome start, but they do not go anywhere near far enough. There are many fantastic national mental health care models around the world that can be copied or borrowed from — particularly ones that address issues in childhood where they can be prevented most effectively.

Without dramatic action and reform, conspiracy theories will continue wreaking havoc on society and make an already dire situation worse.

The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how necessary it is to have a cohesive, caring society that is grounded in reality and working for the common good. Without those bonds, we risk fracturing beyond repair.

This piece was originally published on The Banter newsletter. If you enjoyed it, please consider becoming a subscriber here. It is free to sign up and we publish a mixture of free and members only pieces. Thank you! — Ben

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Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen

The Banter on Medium!

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