October 12, 2020
by Elisa Chelle, Professor in Political Science at the Université Paris Nanterre and Affiliate Researcher at Sciences Po Paris (LIEPP).
Conspiracy theories are all rooted in the same belief: a small group of people would secretly be controlling political decisions or events, to the detriment of the whole. Since the Covid-19 crisis, these theories, unsurprisingly, are shamelessly being sollicited in the United States, where the "paranoid style" (Richard Hofstadter) has been brewing for a long time in political life.
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF CONSPIRACIES
During the Cold War, conservative and anti-communist associations such as the John Birch Society, were feeding into the darkest fears of a new world order "fomented" by the United Nations (UN), or those from president Nixon's worst treacheries because of his "contacts" with Chinese authorities. The fall of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 certainly harbored new scenarios: from verifying Nostradamus predictions to the actions of flying saucers, as well as a plot by the Illuminati. A whole hodgepodge of "explanations" that have also included public health, even if they are less visible in Europe. Examples of these are the crazy rumors on fluorine being added to drinking water, "unnecessary" vaccinations and cell phone "killer" emissions.
From this standpoint, 2020 will be a historic year. It will have scored the convergence of two particularly devastating "conspirational" factors: Donald Trump's presidency with his affinity with the far-right, and the indulgence for conspiracy theories that are no longer secretive (of note in particular is the support given to the QAnon movement), and the advent of a worldwide coronavirus epidemic which has, up to now, caused the death of more than 200 000 people in the United States. The recent news of Donald Trump's infection will probably act as another catalyst to this prolific imagination.
LOTS OF THEORIES AND LOTS OF BELIEVERS
It was expected that conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 would flourish. The virus? It will have been in turn harmless, planed (by the government), inoculated (by the 5G which is a Chinese technology). It would have been, all at the same time, a weapon for biological warfare, a scam by the pharmaceutical industry (to sell vaccines), if not simply being fake news. According to a study done by the respected Pew Research Center, 71% of Americans heard of one conspiracy theory to explain COVID-19, and 25% partially believe these theories have a grain of truth.
Who are these Americans that give credit to these conspiracy rumors? It is interesting to see that among them, the level of education is what comes out as the first criteria. Though 5% of the general population believe these theories are "completely true", it's at 12% among those who only have a middle school education. On a side note, only 47% of people with PhDs consider these theories "totally false", and 31% "probably false". The partisan angle comes into play to a lesser extent. Conspiracy theorists tend to be Republicans: 34% of them give credit to the conspiracy theories against 18% among those who consider themselves Democrats.
AN ILLUSION OF SCIENCE
Conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 are unique in that they do go into a fantasy and esoteric direction. Their arguments are attired with the trappings of science.
The short film "Plandemic" (a contraction of planned pandemic) gave a pseudo-scientific angle to some of these allegations. It had 8 million views before being banned by the main social media platforms. The film is centered around an interview with Judy Mikovits, a biochemical doctor specializing in virology, presented as a whisteblower, a victim of the Establishment (in fact dismissed by her research institution for questionable research, which the video does not mention). The message is meant to be objective and serious. Here and there, there are extravagant claims such as the curing powers of sand and the sea (justifying why beaches should not be closed), or the self-contamination brought on by wearing a mask. But, overall, it's a video that plays with the scientific documentary codes. But to divert them.
AN INNER CONSPIRACY THEORIST
How can we understand this tendency to come up with conspiracy theories? The political scientist Richard Hofstadter had formulated the idea that the "paranoid style" of the far-right in the United States came from social classes seeing themselves as declassified. Other authors suggest that conspiracy theories are an integral part of American culture. Works of fiction, television, video games and the numerous internet discussion groups would only convey and feed into this national imagination, an imaginary world in which fiction and reality work together to achieve freedom and enlighten the world. Popular culture would meet national culture and prove this obvious fact: all Americans have an inner conspiracy theorist in them.
And yet, it is not abnormal for an epidemic of this scale to provoke irrational beliefs. It is difficult to only pin it on just the unrest of the far-right in the United States. The conspiracy theory rhetoric that "nothing is accidental", "appearances are misleading", and "everything is connected" has a practical advantage: it gives a semblance of understanding of a calamity that seems unexplainable.
However, should we forget that this pandemic has a causal factor: the transmission of a virus from a bat to man at live animal markets in China? But that fact is never mentioned in COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The apocalyptic mood at the start of the 21st century marginalizes the need for analysis. The thought of a collapse is more appealing: especially when it takes on a semblance of reality and is presented in pseudo-scientific terms.
 Richard Hofstadter, Le style paranoïaque : théories du complot et droite radicale en Amérique, Paris, Bourin, 2012.
 Mark Fenster, Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 2e éd.
 Michael Barkun, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2013, 2e éd.
Elisa Chelle, Professor in Political Science at the Université Paris Nanterre and Affiliate Researcher at Sciences Po Paris (LIEPP). A specialist in social policies and healthcare policies in the United States, she is the author of Gouverner les pauvres. Politiques sociales et administration du mérite (PUR, 2012)and Comprendre la politique de santé aux États-Unis (Hygée, 2019).