When three of a country’s leading weekly political periodicals write about the same thing at the same time it could be a conspiracy. Or it could just be that this is the important story of the day. The recent issues Profil, News and Die Zeit (Austrian edition) have all carried cover stories on, yes, conspiracy theories.
Front page banners: “The Hour of the Conspiracy Theories (Die Zeit), “The Revolt of the Crazies (Profil) and “The Mad World of the Covid Deniers” (News). Three stories that help to illuminate the murky world of fake news flourishing in the fear-laden atmosphere of the Corona crisis.
This is nothing new. As Sebastian Kempkens points out in Die Zeit, the legend that the Jews unleashed the great plagues in medieval Europe by poisoning the wells goes back to 1348. This was the Black Death, which killed a third of the European population over five years. The bacteria responsible, yersinia pestis, was of course invisible – but the Jews weren’t. Scapegoat sought and found.
Fairytales to fit
“A bizarre parallel mental universe” is how Martin Staudinger in Profil describes the world of the conspiracy theorists. He digs deep into QAnon, a major maker of viral mischief. The QAnon movement is centered in the USA, but has its adherents here in Austria and across Europe. Its most horrific scenario describes a shadowy elite who have kidnapped thousands of young children as unwilling blood donors to extract adrenochrom, a by-product of adrenalin which is supposed to offer eternal life to its wealthy clientele. In more fanciful versions, the children are held in a hi-tech labyrinth of tunnels, where robots and clones battle for control of the spoils. Typical for such theories are the wild discrepancies: In some versions Donald Trump is the evil mastermind, in others he is the noble knight riding to the rescue. Such fantasies often show “considerable ideological flexibility” wrote Austrian political scientist Julia Ebner in her 2019 book Radikalisierungsmaschinen, like QAnon, creating “fairytales that cater to different target groups.”
Who cares who’s guilty
Here in Austria, it is fear-mongering groups like the Identitären, an ethnic nationalistic hard-right movement on the edge of illegality, that pick and choose from QAnon whatever seems to suit their agenda. In neighboring Germany, the right wing AfD (Alliance for Germany) are certain that Covid-19 was intentionally released by the Chinese military to destabilize the West. Or by the Americans. Whatever: As long as there is an identifiable perpetrator.
Intriguing, too, is the profile of the believers – certainly not just the usual Trumpland suspects of grumpy arch-conservative losers. European studies show conspiracy-theory fans evenly across all age groups, economic and educational levels, religious and political persuasions. US studies show a slight bias towards Republicans, but not nearly so pronounced as one might expect. The common denominators seem to be personal anxiety and narcissistic self-confidence. These are a self-described enlightened minority, swimming against the stream. They have only contempt for the “sleepy sheep” who have not found the way. German psychologists describe the state of mind as Selbstüberhöhung (self-overassessment.)
Curse of reason
Anthropologists see the fundamental anxiety as reaching back into our animalistic survival mechanisms. A rustling in the grass can be critically important: For a predator it could be the next meal; for the pursued, they are the next meal. Animals process this instantly, we humans are cursed with the power of reason. We desperately need to be able to explain everything, to find order in apparent chaos. And where we cannot find an explanation, we invent one. Cogito ergo conspirare.