Conspiracy theories have now reached the heart of society. It may still be early for any empirical data, but over the past few days I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence: my Facebook timeline has been full of comments speaking out against virologists, Bill Gates, vaccinations, Angela Merkel and against the strict measures introduced to stem the COVID-19 pandemic. Back in 2015, when the refugee crisis unfolded in Europe, conspiracy theories gained a strong foothold in Germany. Proponents claimed Chancellor Merkel was secretly planning to bring in people from the Middle East and Asia in order to replace the German population; they suspected a global conspiracy.
The name of billionaire philanthropist George Soros has been tied to many of these theories, giving those who believe in them an excuse to pin the blame on a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Followers of Germany’s Reichsburger movement, who deny the legitimacy of the German state and issue their own identity documents, have regularly chimed in from the fringes. Some of their theories were so bleak that in the end they became somewhat amusing. But back then, I didn’t feel the noose of the conspirators tightening around my neck.
It’s different this time, but why? Perhaps because the COVID-19 pandemic has affected literally everyone. Children can’t go to daycare, kindergarten or school and parents are forced to care for them at home while still finding a way to make a living. Universities have been shut down and countless businesses were closed, destroying livelihoods. Older people can’t visit their relatives and friends. Those who are sick, but don’t have COVID-19, are forced to wait for treatments and surgeries. Can this really be true? Can a virus really do this to our society? Back in 2015, people who had always opposed immigration weren’t criticising reality, but how politicians were dealing with the influx of around 1 million refugees. These days, they’re mainly disputing scientific evidence of how the virus spreads. Some people think COVID-19 is no worse than seasonal flu, while others support herd immunity, a position supported by a small minority in the international community. Still others reject vaccinations of any kind, believing them to be useless.
Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University