In his recent article on openDemocracy, Matthias Wasser points out the fact that misinformation is not the prerogative of the radical right or the right for that matter. Indeed, the Covid-19 conspiratorial cesspool is populated both by right-wing extremists and by parts of the liberal left that views itself as woke, progressive and definitely anti-racist. These different ideological strands meet in their denunciation of the “medical industrial complex” and a deep suspicion of the market forces behind any governmental decision—although this is mostly contradictory for the radical right. Thus, the organic food-anti-vaxx-alternative medicine-crowd has been at least confused during the pandemic, as they seem to be wavering between denial of its existence and a conviction that it is a Bill Gates scheme. Interestingly, when we look at the so-called “anti-lockdown” protests, we can see evidence of this ideologically bizarre coexistence: The militiaman Ammon Bundy and his friends transferred their protest outside the home of a policeman who arrested an anti-vaxxer for violating lockdown and in California, anti-vaccination activists joined stay-at-home protesters.
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Nowhere is the liberal conspiracy enclave more obvious than in the highly profitable wellness industry—mostly sustained by the well-off alternative medicine liberals—which now confronts both an economic and an ontological threat in the face of Covid-19. But they have not gone into panic mode. Take, for example, the power couple of Kelly Brogan and her husband Sayer Ji who have wedded their products into a medley of unconventional holistic health counselling. Kelly Brogan is a medical doctor (Psychiatrist) and a New York Times best-selling author who has actually helped a great amount of people overcome depression and a variety of other problems as is evident from countless testimonials. But her claim that the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not actually exist has been met with incredulity by a section of her following, some of whom decided to publicly part ways with her.
Brogan, a frequent GOOP contributor who was recently called out for not having her American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology license renewed, conducted a video talk with her husband (Livecast: Love in the time of COVID, channeling Gabriel García Márquez) where they hit all the right buzzwords (authentic connection, essential humanity, love) in order to advocate for “health freedom.” Ji, who has a Philosophy degree, used medical jargon to explain that a virus is often confused with an exosome, implying that all molecular biologists around the world made a tragic mistake. Their final message: fear of invisible viruses jumping from person to person is a myth leading to our subjugation and wearing a mask is a form of dehumanization.
Different colors of the ideological spectrum have come together to agree that wearing a mask is a symbol of our enslavement to government control
Not to be outdone, Ji dropped Foucault’s biopolitics in the mix in order to strengthen his conceptual grounding for the argument that authoritarian regimes will ultimately want to control your body and they now have the perfect excuse to do so. This is where he enters a territory that was already explored in mid-February by Giorgio Agamben’s response to Covid-19, as a perfect example of his State of Exception. Though a bit tempered in his Clarifications a month later when Italy was surpassing China’s death toll, Agamben’s point that a lockdown—aiming at protecting vulnerable groups and avoiding the collapse of the health care system—relegated us to “bare life,” was aptly taken down by Anastasia Berg as “symptomatic of theory’s collapse into paranoia.”
It would seem, therefore, that different colors of the ideological spectrum have come together to agree that wearing a mask is a symbol of our enslavement to government control. However, there are some important differences: according to a recent Graphica report (“The COVID-19 infodemic”) which mapped online global conversations, right-wing accounts spreading disinformation during the pandemic are more numerous and more active than their left-wing counterparts. Furthermore, far-right violent mobilizations and calls for a “boogaloo” are no match for the “Love is Medicine” project, promoted by Sayer Ji, which you can watch for free in order to practice self-care.
Finally, in terms of a solution to the problem of misinformation, I would agree that censorship is not the right response but a form of “counter-narrative” as Matthias Wasser says would go a long way. The interdisciplinary study of conspiracy theories brings together sociology, psychology and political science and needs to become more pedagogical in the way Paulo Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed talks about it: denunciation followed by annunciation. This means that denouncing dehumanizing structures and practices must always be linked to announcing ways to transform them. This is what I tried to do in my recent piece, How to Debunk Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories, where I identify four characteristics of conspiracy theories: the way a conspiracy theory speaks to you directly, how it selectively weaves disparate data, how it ignores the way we know the world from existing research, and how it creates a sense of despair. We can continue to affirm that the truth really does exist, while simultaneously being wary of how the data to uncover the truth may be used against us.