My friend was the third person, along with a work colleague and neighbor who is a doctor, to recently jump into the conspiracy theory abyss. I often dismissed conspiracy adherents as delusional cult members. But this was different. I knew these women. They were bright and led full, busy lives.
All three fit the same profile: college-educated, white women, middle class. All organic, health food advocates with aversions to mandatory child vaccinations. Additionally, in the midst of this pandemic, these women flipped from Democrats to Trump supporters. Historically anti-vaxxers swing far-left politically, but more recently they’ve embraced Trump. He has been promoting anti-vaxxer content for years, and now, as our nation loses its fight against Covid, Trump’s constituents believe that our conspirator in chief understands and cares about their concerns about vaccines. The Hill reported that in 2012 Donald Trump warned viewers that believed childhood vaccines caused autism. He tweeted: “Massive combined inoculations to small children is the cause for big increase in autism….” and this is just one an example from dozens of tweets relating vaccinations to autism.
Not surprisingly, vaccine skeptics are fearful of a Covid vaccine, conspiracy theorists believe that mass vaccinations will be used for human tracking purposes. Over 40% of Republicans would decline the vaccine even if free. The need for herd immunity, important for controlling the virus, is unlikely to be met, if not enough people get the vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 global health risks according to Science magazine. Most women polled say their resistance is because they don’t trust vaccines in general.
Dismissing this conspiracy group, as we did with small signs of discontent and populist uprisings prior to the 2016 election, would be another egregious error. Exit polls indicate that 44% of white college graduates voted for Trump, 52% white women in general voted for Trump – nine points ahead of Hillary Clinton. It’s difficult to determine the exact impact this added anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theory groups will have on the election, but there is no doubt they are motivated. “Trump is our only hope in 2020,” anti-vaxxers and current Covid skeptics often post on Facebook.
Although we live in different states, my friend, I will call her Alice, and I have kept in touch. Our yearly catch ups centered on the simple things from recipes or fitness routines. We led completely different lives. I was nomadic, living on three continents, while she was married and raising three kids in suburbia. After her daughter experienced learning delays that coincided with an early childhood vaccine she became interested in the side-effects of vaccines – which now referred to as the anti-vaxx movement. At the time, I took it as a friend trying to find answers for her daughter’s sudden loss of cognitive skills. “It’s like she’s going backwards,” Alice once told me. Only recently, when the pandemic hit, after she sent various conspiracy theory links, was it evident that she was deeply immersed in the conspiracy world.
“From Rockefeller to Gates, it’s all related,” Alice told me. “This has been in the works for a long time, and it’s all part of a new world order of control and surveillance.” She attends Zoom meetings with doctors who explain the “misuse of ventilators in NYC hospitals” and how “wearing a mask will kill you”. She felt privy to a labyrinth of interconnected world-altering plots. My questioning the credibility of these sources was taken as a sure sign that I had been brainwashed by the mainstream media.
I was about to toss Alice’s conspiracy-conversion into the mental compartment of “That’s really weird” when I noticed rampant conspiracy postings on an old work colleague’s Facebook page. Incessant shares combined with cryptic messages: “The “planned” Covid virus…”, “Anthony Fauci is conspiring with Bill Gates for forced vaccinations” and, of course, “STOP the toxic 5G Towers…”
She was an organic food guru, with a masters’ degree who used to be an Obama supporter – but now supports Trump based on his anti-vaccine history. She had previously posted about superfoods to her Facebook friends, but now favors Dr Rashid Buttar videos, a doctor who touts conspiracy theories on YouTube, anti-5G summit meetings, and the HR6666 (Contact Tracing) bill’s evil intent.
My first thought was that she had been hacked. Her other Facebook friends thought so too: “What is going on? Prove this is really you?” and “There are scientific facts that discount all of your posts.” No response. So her Facebook friends began replying to each other. “This can’t be her” and “This spiral is horrific to watch”.
I texted her phone directly. “What’s going on with all this Covid stuff?” “You’ve seen my Facebook postings?” came her reply. “Nearly everything on mainstream is a manipulated propaganda lie. Whether it’s CNN or FOX … It’s Gates, It’s the CCP. This is a war. I hate to say it 🙁 but it’s happening.”
I wondered what my responsibility, or even qualifications were to combat this way of thinking. So far, any opposition I have raised is met with either looks of sympathetic horror for my ignorance or simply silence. My colleague was right about one thing though – This is happening. It is a war – against misinformation that begins at the very top – the Oval Office. This administration’s flirtations and outright endorsements of conspiracy theories lend legitimacy to these untruths for some people. The president’s condemnation of the media has severed bonds with the public. Citizens from all demographics are looking for other venues for information, latching on to ones that support their worldview that algorithmically has been conditioned into myopic thinking.
This is not solely a fringe group of uninformed people blindly forwarding cat videos. These are college-educated women who (correctly or incorrectly) believe they have done their research. They look out for their families, the health of their children, and they share information on their Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Adherent literature abounds, providing a rabbit hole of media links to seemingly real evidence from experts.
I recently ran into my neighbor, a retired doctor. Five years ago, when I wasn’t feeling well but was too busy to see a doctor, she kindly slid a prescription for antibiotics under my door. But now, even she was infected with conspiracy theories. “Can you believe that Bill Gates and Fauci?” she said, adding: “They should be arrested.”
Debra Winter is a professor of Literature and Critical Thinking at New York University (NYU), the author of the forthcoming book, Global Catastrophe and Literature: Writing the Sublime. Her work has been published in the Atlantic, CityLabs, Collective Quarterly, World Travel magazine and Soma magazine
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