BY OLIVIA MARKS
On a boiling hot summer night in August, Jessica* sat on the edge of the bed in her shared flat in Manchester. She looked across the room to the spot that had been her office since lockdown began – a hastily bought Amazon laptop desk, a stack of cliché fashion photography books and her laptop precariously perched on top. She’d been slouched over the mess for months. Feeling depleted and like life was passing her by, she decided it was time to shake things up. After deleting all her dating apps at the beginning of lockdown in March, Jessica downloaded Hinge and Bumble and jumped back into her old accounts. After a few months of swiping, she was surprised to meet someone so seemingly lovely and normal who was communicative and committed.
Things moved fast. Within a month, they were official and Jessica was happier than she’d ever been with her new boyfriend. But just before Christmas, with their relationship mostly relegated to long phone calls and texting sessions, he started saying weird things. “He thought it was possible that 5G caused Covid and he thought the idea of Hillary Clinton being in a coven was both funny and plausible,” Jessica says. When they spoke on the phone that evening, it all came out. Jessica discovered her boyfriend was a conspiracy theorist. “He said he wasn’t extreme, but that he just didn’t trust the government and wanted to question things. Everything he told me seemed pretty extreme though.”
Jessica isn’t alone. Conspiratorial thinking is on the rise across the world. But this isn’t some bore at the pub talking about the moon landing being staged – we all remember that voice note from early lockdown days in which a man claimed to have insider information that aliens were being enlisted to help enforce lockdown. In 2021, false news and misinformation aren’t just gossip tactics, they’re political tools with the potential to cause significant damage.
Trickling into popular culture in 2017 when the American blog 4chan started to spread the QAnon theory – the idea that Donald Trump is trying to eliminate a Satanic ring in the US government, celebrities and wider society – a recent survey found that a quarter of Americans believe QAnon claims to be accurate. Many QAnon supporters were part of the group who stormed the Capitol Building in January. But this isn’t just an American phenomenon; conspiracy theorists are rapidly growing in the UK. In October 2020, a study revealed that a quarter of UK adults also believe in a conspiracy theory linked to QAnon. In January, Cornwall-based Mappin & Webb jewellery heir John Mappin was outed as a leading figure in the UK QAnon movement.
What’s more, there’s a gender gap. New research by University of Delaware professors Joanne Miller, Erin Cassese and Christina Farhart found that men are significantly more likely to believe Covid-19 conspiracy theories than women. “What’s going on here is that there are gender differences regardless of [political] party,” says Cassese. Cassese and her colleagues attribute the gap to learned helplessness, “a feeling of powerlessness and an inability to take meaningful action to address a problem”, and the tendency towards conspiratorial thinking. Unsurprisingly, this is causing big problems for women and their relationships with men. The final frontier for QAnon theorists will be to have Hillary Clinton arrested and interrogated, and many theories pedal sexist ideas, including the belief that Meghan Markle is a programmed robot – a rumour that, thanks to social media and the internet, is travelling at the speed of light.
“We broke up pretty soon after he told me,” says Jessica. “The thing that repulses me is that so much of this is fake news and it’s sexist. A lot of the theories have women at the centre.” A friend of mine says she finds this research unsurprising. “I definitely noticed more men on dates floating vague conspiracy theories, like whether the outbreak is as serious as the government says it is. On a socially distanced date, even the faintest hint of that nonsense totally kills the vibe.”
Of course, conspiratorial thinking is not solely the domain of men, but Cassese believes there are some important patterns in the rise of male conspiratorial thinking around Covid-19 and shifting gender roles in relationships. “We think it’s possible that beliefs about masculinity and gender roles might explain the difference. Men might be responding to uncertainty related to the pandemic, but also to economic uncertainty. It might be resonating differently with men and women (on average) because of social expectations around the ‘breadwinner’ role.”
For the first time in years, conspiracy theorists are becoming younger, with Gen Z sharing theories like Pizzagate on TikTok, the idea that Covid-19 is a ruse to draw attention away from Hillary Clinton’s satanic ring. A recent story by the New York Times found Pizzagate conspiracy videos had been viewed 82 million times on the TikTok app. But these theories aren’t a deal breaker for all women. London-born Reba* had been with her boyfriend for a year when he started floating conspiracy theories in March. “It was a huge mess of these wild theories. He said loads of his friends were on some sort of level of believing what he was talking about and chalked it up to being passionate about the truth.” She asked for evidence. “He had none.” None of this made Reba break up with her boyfriend. “He’s actually the most attentive boyfriend I’ve ever had. But I have made it clear that anything sexist won’t be tolerated.”
In the upcoming novel, Fake Accounts, writer Lauren Oyler’s protagonist secretly looks through her boyfriend’s mobile while he’s sleeping and, instead of finding texts from exes, finds out he’s a conspiracy theorist with a successful conspiratorial Instagram account. “One of the things I was interested in was, for the people who had the conspiracy theory accounts, what the measure of true belief was, or if it was more of a fun manipulative game to them,” she says. As Oyler suggests in the book, in an age of identity via social media, we’re all telling some sort of lie. “To various degrees, everybody is performing in one way or another. We’re constantly being inundated with various untruths, or half truths, or spin.”
The boom in conspiracy theorists makes sense for a time in which social media has made it possible to convey any identity or truth you pick, whether it’s actually truthful or not. Facebook and Twitter are attempting to crack down on fake news, but with an already chaotic 2021 looming, it seems likely that conspiracy theorists will continue. As Cassese says, the rise in male Covid-19 theorists is in part due to a feeling of hopelessness. Until that lack of hope in society is restored, the theorists will continue to conspire.
*Names have been changed.