Sarah Wilson Explains Why the Crisis of COVID-19 Made Way for So Many Conspiracy Theories

Sarah Wilson

When the Vivid Sydney makes its triumphant return later in 2021, there will be a plethora of art installations, live music shows and talks to captivate your imagination and get you thinking outside the box.

One of those talks, which will surely be a hot ticket during the festival, will be ‘Conspiracy-gate’ — a frank, in-person conversation session between best-selling author  Sarah Wilson, whose latest book is This One Wild and Precious Life, and the Coronacast‘s Dr Norman Swan.

The pair will be breaking down the “latest avalanche of conspiracy theories” which have taken on a life of their own since the pandemic began. The talk will explore trust vs mistrust, evidence vs social proof, and the rise of ‘conspiritualism’ to uncover what fuels people’s doubt — a timely topic with the growing number of anti-vax conspiracies that have seen Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy increase exponentially.

The Latch chatted to Wilson about the prevalence of conspiracies and why the wellness industry seems to fall prey to them more than other groups. Ahead, are some of the key takeaways from the interview, all of which will be discussed in greater depth during Wilson and Dr Swan’s conversation.

How Did We Get Here?

“This is what we do in a crisis. When we’re hungry, we go and hunt down food. That’s our primal response — when we’re thirsty, we hunt down water and we won’t stop to find it. And when we’re in a crisis, we will hunt down security via tribal thinking,” Wilson told The Latch. 

“We will believe a Facebook post shared by a friend, someone who is in our tribe, over whatever scientists might tell us is the truth, or fact. We are programmed to doubt because that serves us really well — we are programmed to doubt when we are in fear. This was all happening before COVID, but COVID provided the perfect storm for it.”

Why Has COVID Bred So Many Conspiracies?

“There are two really important factors. There’s the time and the fact that people are at home instead of out in the community, and feeling vulnerable. So we’re out coalescing around these online tribes, and then going down this rabbit hole. 

“Then, of course, there are the algorithms. That is the other factor, which is that technology enables it. You go down this rabbit hole, and you start off questioning 5G and you end up thinking the Queen is a shapeshifting lizard.

“The other thing is that in this particular crisis, or even the climate crisis, the threat is a real uncertainty, the threat is an unknown. In a war, we have a common enemy against the Nazis and the communists and so we galvanise around that as a collective. But in this case, we don’t know who it is and so in that uncertainty, we will grasp at an enemy because, in a sense, we need an enemy in order to feel safe.

“Excuse my language but it’s a cluster**k — which is an actual US Army term that describes a situation where the factors are so complex, we can’t actually keep them all apart.” 

Is There a ‘Right’ Way to Approach Someone Who Believes a Conspiracy Theory?

“In many ways, greeting conspiracy theorists with facts, figures and the truth, if anything, can see people dig their heels in further because they feel threatened. And then the ‘Us vs Them’ thing will be reinforced as well because they will say that we are the “sheeple” and we are the ones who haven’t done our research.

“It’s so tribal, and anything we present to them to counter their thinking is seen as threatening because tribal belonging is more important than the truth, to be honest. That’s how we operate as humans, and this is something we don’t recognise ourselves.

“But, if you go back to this idea that what they’re responding to is a desire in a crisis to belong to a tribe, what we’ve got to do is create the cooler tribe, the sexier tribe and show them there is a better tribe to belong to over here. To do that, we need to make it look enticing and let them know that they will be welcomed and they will be accepted, and they’re not going to be ridiculed. 

“And that’s hard because if you’ve got a loved one in your life who is at the dinner table bringing up all these theories, it’s very easy to shout them down and accuse them of the very thing that they are accusing us of, which is not being open-minded or doing our own research. What we’ve got to do is just get on with discussing the truth and getting comfortable with nuance, because that is what’s missing from this debate, is nuance.” 

Why Does the Wellness Industry Seem More Susceptible to Conspiracies?

“The wellness industry has always been about questioning the status quo and questioning the interests of industries such as sugar, oil or the big pharmaceutical companies. 

“Prior to COVID, there was already a lot of 5G technology questioning, and I think questioning the information that we’re given is really important. The problem, or part of it, is that the wellness industry was a very coalescing kind of tribe very connected with social media.

“So, when COVID happened and we all went into isolation, it was already there and once there was that spark, the whole thing kind of burned through the whole wellness industry because they were already on these Facebook groups. So, a lot of people went down the rabbit hole via these algorithms that are already in place. 

“But I also think that contemporary spiritualism is exceedingly individualistic, it’s all about ‘me, me, me.’ But spiritually, at least up until quite recently, historically included sacrifice and being of service and attending to the collective effects. That is the primary point of going off and meditating so that you are in the best place to go and serve your community and attend to the collective. Now, that piece of it has been dropped off, unfortunately.”

Sarah Wilson and Dr Norman Swan’s ‘Conspiracy-gate’ session at Vivid Sydney 2021, has been rescheduled due to the current restrictions in place in Sydney. For more information please head to the Vivid Sydney website

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