Conspiracies and the Coronavirus in the USA and Germany

By early May 2020, Coronavirus and Conspiracies had become a pressing issue. It should not come as a surprise that the global right-wing is linking the coronavirus to conspiracies. The use of conspiracies is nothing new. In 2018, CNN reported that within 72 hours, three hate crimes killed two African-Americans in Kentucky, nail bombs were sent to Democrats to people who criticized Donald Trump. Before that, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing eleven people attending Jewish services. The men who committed these acts had one thing in common. They believed in conspiracies.

It seems that we have entered the age of half-truths, fake news, paranoia, resentment, and irrationality. Fired up by Donald Trump, this is the Age of Conspiracies. One of the nuttiest conspiracies is the hallucination that Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter. It is laughable, albeit obscene, and very dangerous. Conspiracies are neither theories nor science. They are not confirmed by scientific methods that are used to explain nature and society. As such, conspiracy theories do not produce provable information. They might better be labeled conspiracy myths. Still, conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that sound plausible, connecting things that are not really linked while allowing people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradictions.

With the rise of Facebook & Co., conspiracies seem to have their very own digital reality existing quite apart from analog reality. Inside such digital spaces, a large amount of bullshit has been invented. It is no longer uncommon to hear conspiracy myths that secret forces created the refugee avalanche to destroy our homeland. There never was an avalanche – nor a caravan (Trump) but children in cages (Trump). There is no caravan and are no secret forces. And refugees will not destroy our homeland.

Still, these are more than just dangerous misbeliefs. They are early signs of rising fascism. Historically, the Nazi hallucination of a Jewish world conspiracy paved the way to the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Today, conspiracies aren’t dead and buried. The opposite is the case. They are the high currency for right-wing politicians. A sure sign of a rising belief in conspiracies remains. Just as White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon once says, the story is more important than reality. Today, this is applied to the coronavirus.

Coronavirus and Conspiracies

People who believe in conspiracies do not only have one overarching common denominator – low levels of educational and intellectual achievement. Hence, the fear of the unknown and the invisible. During the corona crisis, conspiracy creators found easy prey. Some people are particularly vulnerable to conspiracies. And these are not just aluminum hat-wearing people protected from cosmic radiation.

For weeks, a new virus has broken out in Germany: the virus of conspiracies. Right-wing extremists have organized so-called hygiene rallies set against restrictions preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Demonstrations took place in Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin, and other cities. Germany’s right-wing has skillfully mixed their ideology with a simple fear of losing individual freedom. Many attendees have been used by conspiracy theorists to attract even more followers.

German conspiracy theorists question the veracity of the virus. They believe Corona was bread in secret laboratories in China or even the USA. Others see the whole crisis as a gigantic maneuver to mask their l’idée fixe that 5G radio waves make people sick and even kill them. A highly popular conspiracy in Germany is that Bill Gates is using his money to develop vaccines, and in a massive plot, everyone will be forced to take the vaccines to fight the corona pandemics. This has enraged the global anti-vaccination groups.

Conspiracies work, and they are dangerous for democracy as conspiracies spread. There seems to be a conspiracy theorist in every village. He – mostly it is a “he” – was, in the past, commonly laughed at. Today, 20,000 conspiracy theorists can meet in a closed WhatsApp forum . They enter their WhatsApp echo chamber and hype up their levels of skepticism by exchanging obsessions and strengthen their conspiracies and ideologies.

In Germany, this has become a serious problem. We can observe this in many German cities. Of course, all of this is highly contagious. All those who feel that there is something wrong with state measures against Corona are quickly drawn into their hallucinogenic world. Suddenly, they found a new home. They enter a secure place. They are among like-minded people, all claiming there is an evil plan behind it all. The madness is then transferred from the digital sphere into the analog world.

It creates a sort of tribal thinking, tarnishing facts, rationality, science, and evidence. This has developed something that might be called a conspiracy mentality and a tribal mindset. Both obscure a clear view of the Corona facts. This can quickly lead to sometimes being subjected to one’s own worldview. This does not work for everyone.

But it works very well for those who have a slightly lower level of education. According to this explanation, someone like Donald Trump, for example, should be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than, for example, someone like Angela Merkel, who was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry. Unlike Merkel, believers in conspiracies are also more likely to accept the supernatural. They tend to extremes and have trouble thinking in scientific and statistical terms. Again, Trump (a man) is more likely than Merkel (a woman) to be deprived of this ability.

The Fear of the Invisible

We know that men are more open to conspiracies than women. There is a serious overlap between men and the far right as well as conspiracies with far-right ideas. In general, however, a fear of the scientific and technically elusive remains relevant for conspiracies. It is the fear of the unknown and the invisible that leads conspiracy theorists to cook up semi-plausible issues often linked to plausible but largely home-cooked speculations. The fear of the unseen, the inexplicable, and the artificial often work in favor of conspiracies. Essentially, it is the mesmerizing quack of the medieval village market transferred into modernity using modern technology.

There is an arms race between technology and education. On the one hand, there is more and more technology, and on the other, educational levels must be higher and higher to be able to understand counter this. If the technology race wins, the likely outcome is a significant increase in conspiracies. Consequently, conspiracies should be more prevalent in fly-over states and adjacent backwaters than in MIT’s library.

Facing Conspiracy Theorists

It is practically challenging to tell a conspiracy theorist that their “theories” are without foundation in facts and empirical evidence. When someone has embarked on conspiracies, they have gone through many processes of self-immunization. They tend to interpret any form of criticism only as confirmation of their own worldviews and convictions. One of the hardest things is to tell them that their ideas are dead wrong. This is true in political, social, environmental, and moral spheres. Still, perhaps one of the few ways to convince someone is dialogue. The only thing you can do is to seek a personal connection, ask, understand, discuss, and try to sow doubt about conspiracies. Researchers on right-wing extremists say this is tedious, and it takes a long time.

Climate Deniers Discover Corona

Those who deny climate change also tend to follow conspiracies on the coronavirus. The subject is very different, global warming here and the coronavirus there. Still, the accusations of conspiracy theorists are very similar. Claims about global warming mirror those about the coronavirus. In both areas, data and models of science are presented as doubtful and even wrong. In the case of the coronavirus, conspiracy theorists believe that governments were just trying to restrict people’s freedom.

Despite causing about 300,000 deaths globally (13th May 2020), conspiracy theorists believe that it isn’t bad. They believe that coronavirus is just a hoax. It is a grand conspiracy directed against ordinary people. Climate change deniers have been influencing the world for decades. With the coronavirus, conspiracies gaining renewed momentum. Their conspiracies have entered the global corona debate in large numbers. The top 10 current conspiracies are:

1) Blaming 5G

2) Bill Gates as a scapegoat

3) The virus escaped from a Chinese lab

4) Corona was created as a biological weapon

5) The US military imported Corona into China

6) GMOs are somehow to blame

7) Corona doesn’t actually exist

10) The pandemic is being manipulated by the ‘deep state’

11) Corona is a plot by Big Pharma

12) Corona death rates are inflated

Believers in these ten conspiracies are often the very same people who also argue against climate science. In an open worldwide letter, hundreds of doctors and nurses are now objecting to this. Conspiracies on the Coronavirus have become known as infodemie. Infodemie relies heavily on social media. Their conspiracies threaten lives all over the world, and it is worse than just false news. Medical staff, doctors, and nurses are calling on companies such as Facebook and Twitter to take action immediately and systematically.

Climate denial and corona denial is related and has now been documented for the first time. In the COVIDeniers Report, the research platform has compiled how patterns of reasoning, actors, financiers, and political intentions work hand in hand among climate and Corona skeptics, especially in the US. A stream of false information about the coronavirus has come together. This includes right-wing think tanks, so-called experts (some of them self-proclaimed and self-appointed), corporate-funded crypto academics, and right-wing activists. Many have already scorned climate science. Their common aim was to slow down action against the climate crisis. Now they work against efforts to fight the coronavirus.

DeSmogBlog is a platform that has been researching climate skeptics ties to energy companies and conservative donors since 2006. They have debunked their hidden and hideous, communication strategies, and their spreading of fake news. Since March 2020, the DeSmogBlog team has compiled statements, tweets, and articles that show that many US think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute are funded by the US oil industry. The tink tanks’ purpose is to spread propaganda to interfere with scientific discussion on global warming. Using proven propaganda tactics that they have perfected since the 1990s, the current leitmotif is, get capitalism going – never mind the human cost. Their motive is to sow doubts about climate science using specific communication strategies.

Five Common Strategies

The German website has just created a new graphic on the propaganda strategies and methods used by deniers. It describes the five most common strategies. Klimafakten calls its model to explain their ideological work as FLICC:

Fake experts,

Logical fallacies,

Impossible expectations,

Cherry-picking, and

Conspiracy theories

Corona conspiracies run similar misinformation and disinformation. Corona deniers always follow the same reasoning patterns relying on abstruse justifications. They say that the computational models of science are unreliable. Corona deniers believe that Corona is no worse than the flu. Some have shifted from fighting against climate protection because Corona is now the new priority. Corona and global warming deniers believe that no money should be spent on a green deal. There are also mounting insults against the UN’s health agency, WHO, joining Donald Trump. They also dig up old favorites of the right-wing conspiracy theories surrounding big donors like George Soros and Bill Gates.

The central narrative of Coronavirus deniers is that they accuse governments around the world for creating fear about the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. They believe that governments use global warming and now the coronavirus to oppress people. Governments should do little to nothing about COVID-19, writes libertarian US author Richard Ebeling, because it is a social and medical problem, not a political one.

Such political worldviews quickly build a connection among deniers. Coronavirus deniers strongly reject the influence of governments on people’s lives, and their opposition to climate protection and their Corona fight presents an ideological attitude. Their homepages feature aggressive climate-skeptics like Germany’s infamous Eike Institute. In the Eike Institute (a corporate lobbyist), one finds entries fusing current Corona policies with conspiracies. Facts, data, and scientific evidence are presented as false, unscientific, and dangerous.

Eike even claims that the people who want to shut down the economy are looking for socialism. Unsurprisingly, Germany’s most notorious right-wing extremist party, The AfD links up with Coronavirus deniers. Faced with declining popularity, the AfD demands that CO2 emissions be considered secondary in the Coronavirus pandemic. This is bad news.

On the upswing, the corona crisis has changed the mood to the positive. How governments deal with this crisis could have a significant impact on their role in protecting the population. If individual states get their community through the crisis well, the people might also trust the government more on the issue of global warming. Still, there are some who think that the government should not interfere. Given the experience of coronavirus, this seems to be changing rapidly.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of The AfD published by Sussex Academic Press.

Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy