The spectrum between conspiracy and truth is as blurred as it’s ever been. Credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images

September 28, 2020   5 mins

Walking up Whitehall on a Saturday, by Downing Street I was passed by a couple of young women bearing placards. One said: ‘Save Our Children’.

The guessing game began. Their clothes didn’t scream Socialist Worker Party. So what were they protesting? Who were these children, and what did they need saving from? The Bedroom Tax? Black Lives Not Mattering? Turkey Twizzlers?

As we crowded into Trafalgar Square the answer became obvious: satanic paedophile cults.

There, a crowd of true believers were gathering for the grand jamboree of dissent that was the Unite For Freedom Rally. I had accidentally stumbled into the conspiracy theory motherlode. There were many more QAnon posters — the particular creed that these two were devoted to. But there were also posters that advertised Bill Gates’s largely unrelated attempts to depopulate the West. Then the vaguely related but far more established anti-vaxxers. Then the ultra-modern 5G types. A man in a cut-out face visor held a garish folk art poster with more orthodox anti-Semitic Rothschild tropes, even as more milquetoast libertarians used their posters to assert only that “masks are muzzles” and “new normal = new fascism”. Finally, there was a single placard, perhaps designed to unite these disparate sub-tribes under a single belief system. It said only: “SCAM”.

The Unite For Freedom Rally had been advertised online as aiming for ‘an end to Government lies and the restoration of all freedoms’, but its remit went far wider than that, because its organiser was Kate Shemirani.

In recent weeks, Shemirani has emerged as the leader of Britain’s anti-Covid conspiracists. The quickest way into her belief system is to note that she refused chemotherapy for breast cancer on the advice of a husband who thought 9/11 was an inside job, then embarked on: “a fat-free, salt-free, sugar-free vegan regime including high doses of vitamins as well as 13 juices a day, five coffee enemas and mistletoe injected into her stomach”. Anti-vax is her strong suit, but you name it and Shemirani will believe it.

So why was she teaming up with Dolores Cahill? Cahill is a doctor and a professor from University College Dublin. She’s a world expert in biomarker discovery and diagnostics; you can’t say that about people who squirt mistletoe into their tummies.

Cahill was one of the early speakers. She believes we’ve over-egged the lethality of coronavirus (perfectly reasonable), and also that vaccines carry safety risks (debatable, but she has the scientific chops to make a case). Just upstream of her, the day’s first speaker quoted nothing more noxious than Karol Sikora and Carl Heneghan, putting a mainstream case that anyone locked down with Toby Young would know only too well.

Yet just 20 minutes later David Icke was onstage, joining all imaginable dots as he hammered his emetic catchphrase: “People of England get off your knees, the lion sleeps no more.”

Many conspiracy theories are already negations of other conspiracy theories. Is it a necessary or merely a sufficient condition to believe that Bill Gates is trying to depopulate the Western world, in order to believe that a New Jersey pizza parlour is a global hub for the dial-out molestation of children?

If Dolores Cahill believes that vaccines containing aluminium risk long-term toxicity if injected intra-muscularly, how does this square with Shemirani’s view: that they are full of microchips bearing ‘Darpa thought-monitoring agents’? Curiously, no one seemed interested in debating anyone else’s view. The crowd cheered everything.

‘Sharing a platform’ is a peculiar modern fallacy — a kind of lo-res conspiracy theory in itself about how ‘wings’ in politics work. But there’s also something quite strange about the bland pax that prevails here. In the world of deep belief, it seems all are welcome, more belief is always better, and nothing is ever contradictory so long as it pushes against power. It’s like one of those pan-faith conferences beloved of CofE bishops and Prince Charles. I do Buddha. You do Allah. They do Yoga. But — hey man — we all worship the same spiritual dimension.

Are conspiracy theories on the Left or on the Right of politics? Only their targets give it away. Inside the horseshoe, a hatred of the shadowy ‘Elites’ invokes both a libertarian desire to live freely and a leftist desire to topple power hierarchies. The sleight of hand that resolves the paradox is that no one is ever required to define what comes after the Elites are toppled.

One reason for the present boom times for the likes of Shemirani is an age-old one: in times of trial we turn to faith. Another is more specific: the spectrum between conspiracy and truth is as blurred as it’s ever been.

The present moment seems designed to test the premise that Michel Foucault and R.D. Laing tried to write into our culture: that madness itself is a social construct, and a rational response to an insane society. Glaring contradictions in plain view are a force multiplier to the paranoid. In normal times, those contradictions are hidden by the sheer imposing gloss of an advanced society.

Yet anyone who has participated in the past few weeks of British life will be able to stick at least one finger in the gap between appearance and reality. Is it terribly surprising that some will also give it a wiggle?

Every day we are being asked to participate in what amounts to hygiene theatre. Never mind the rule of six, witness the contradiction between wearing masks in the queue for your coffee, and not when sat down right next to the queue. Witness the perspex shield between you and the barista. Then watch agog as the same server calmly places a receipt into your hand. It only takes a few seconds of googling to learn that a covid particle is 0.125 microns across, while a high-end N95 mask protects only against particles 3 microns or bigger. The size difference between a football and a goal.

Those who study conspiracy theories point out that they are seldom based on nothing. Normally, a kernel of jarring truth is exagerrated, kneaded, worked on. In the world of QAnon, that process of growing the dough even has a name: ‘baking’.

It’s not much of a conspiracy to say that day-to-day, we are often asked to practise folk epidemiology to avoid frightening the horses. My mask doesn’t so much protect you as it protects some semi-imagined other who would be too scared to go onto a packed tube carriage without an implement that only months ago the WHO said didn’t work.

So where exactly is line between frightened horses and the ‘scared sheeple’ prominent on so many Unite For Freedom posters? The paranoid already see life as one big psyops game. In the Covid age, government sees it as one big Nudge Unit. Is that much of a difference?

Some of the sheer arbitrariness involved in Covid rules is unavoidable. Other bits are merely the voice of a government that has learned to speak in an infantilising tone. But both implicitly force the mainstream to cede ground to the nutters, to reveal that they may have some small, limited point. Around that tiny reef of truth, the barnacles of Q and Anti-Vax and Gates and 5G are attaching themselves.

After the Iraq War, the fallout from Alastair Campbell’s 45 minute dossier disintegrated our belief in what ‘they’ were telling us as foreign policy. Covid is rapidly turning into a home front version. The bourgeois conspiracy Iraq unleashed: “It’s all about oil”, is not too far from the Covid libertarian one: “It’s all about control.” Both feed more feral versions: “It’s all about Israel,” and “It’s all about mind control.

This week, the Australian state of Victoria witnessed yet another extraordinary act of police overreach: footage of cops stomping on a mentally ill man’s head, after running him down in their car, for what seems to be little more than the crime of breaking curfew.

Rather than shrink in shame, the state’s premier, Dan Andrews, used his news conference to justify their actions with a shrug. “Much of this, sorry, all of it can be avoided,” he told the press, “if people don’t protest.” What paranoia is unjustified in the face of Andrews’ statement? What part of V For Vendetta is still science fiction? Who’s the real nutter here?

Between Il Duce Dan in the real world, and the vile fantasies of QAnon online: that’s the narrow ledge of sanity on which we must all perch.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.