There’s nothing new about looking for answers. At a time when religion is on the retreat in many countries, people often look to alternative theories of life and the universe, particularly in periods of uncertainty. As coronavirus has spread, so have conspiracy theories: protesters gather to denounce masks, vaccines and 5g networks; social-media feeds teem with histrionic videos about murky cabals and worst of all, it has reached your family WhatsApp group. But if you’re going to argue with a conspiracy theorist, you’d better speak their language. If someone tells you to “follow the breadcrumbs”, resist the urge. When you hear someone disparaging “sheeple”, stand proudly as a member of the flock. After all, it’s much harder to refute lies if you’re ignorant too.
People who are docile or easily influenced (noun)
They’ve already had the wool pulled over their eyes
True believers in niche, unprovable woo-woo – whether political, sociological or extra-terrestrial – tend to share one characteristic: self-righteousness. It takes commitment to build a burning conviction that you are one of the few people clear-eyed enough to see the “truth” in a world of madness. The pay-off is the pleasure that comes with upbraiding the rest of us for not sharing the delusion.
“Sheeple”, a portmanteau of sheep and people, is the term conspiracy theorists use about the rest of the population, those who they consider passively credulous, blindly following conventional wisdom without thought. The term was first used in 1945, and Merriam-Webster, one of America’s best-known dictionaries, added it in 2017. But its use spiked during the dark days of lockdown in April. Depending on your chosen theory, sheeple may have been brainwashed into disbelieving that aids is a hoax conjured by fear-mongering from “Big Condom” or that mobile-phone masts have been spreading coronavirus. Those who deride the sheeple see themselves as enlightened and brave – and they definitely don’t give a flock.
Follow the breadcrumbs
Clues in the QAnon conspiracy theory (verb)
Some people need to use their loaf
In the story of “Hansel and Gretel” in “Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, the children are taken deep into the forest and Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs so the pair can find their way home.
Thanks to America’s most popular conspiracy theory, QAnon, “following the breadcrumbs” has now taken on an entirely different meaning. Rather than lead you home, the trail of breadcrumbs will take you down bizarre rabbit holes online.
These messages, often referred to as “drops” or “crumbs”, refer either to the alleged crimes of a supposed “cabal” within the elite, or to the progress of Trump’s investigation into the secret war (known as the “cbts”, or “calm before the storm”). Each crumb is then eagerly dissected online by the theory’s growing, cult-like following.
The conspiracy theory is no longer restricted to the fringes of the internet. Some in the White House appear to endorse it. Trump has winked to his QAnon supporters, on Twitter and in press conferences, and endorsed several pro-QAnon congressional candidates, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who referred to “Q” as a patriot. They clearly know on which side their bread is buttered.
Lookalikes of politicians (noun)
Lookalikes of politicians (noun)
Could Russia’s president be getting younger?
Vladimir Putin has been in power in Russia for the past 20 years and seems likely to hold onto it for many more. It’s not surprising, then, that some people reckon that there’s more to his seeming timelessness than appears – and argue that the Russian president has several doubles who represent him in public. Some believers in this theory suggest that the real Putin is dead. Others maintain that doppelgangers are used for security reasons, akin to Hollywood actors’ stunt doubles (there were similar theories about Saddam Hussein).
The Russian internet is rife with side-by-side photographs of Putin’s face. Surely, they insist, there are too many differences for all the pictures to be of the same man? Evidence that Putin has had plastic surgery is deemed insufficient (one nickname for him is “made out of Botox”).
Putin even addressed the theory earlier this year when he said that the Russian government did consider deploying doubles in the noughties, when the country was struggling with terrorist threats, but they were never used. Official rebuttals only make advocates more convinced – particularly given that Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin both apparently used doubles for security reasons.
Conspiracy theories often reflect contemporary fears and anxieties. The obsession with Putin doubles stems from a chronic lack of trust in the government. It probably reflects a deeper fear too: that if Putin doesn’t age, Russia may never be free of him.
One who blames Abe Shinzo for everything (noun)
A scapegoat can be useful
When a popular Japanese actor was arrested in 2019 for possessing illegal drugs, Twitter was abuzz with rumours of Abe Shinzo’s involvement. Could the prime minister (he has since stepped down) have orchestrated her jailing to divert public attention away from his own corruption scandals? Scores of Abegās claimed so – including a former premier from the opposition camp.
Abegā theories span a wide range of issues. Some argue that Abe conspired with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, to conduct missile tests. Others blame him for setting off earthquakes and typhoons to cover up his political blunders. Abegās, from the most radical to the moderate kind, also attacked Abe for deliberately limiting covid testing to flatten infection numbers. Though his nearly eight year rule may finally be over, the Abegā forces remain. The question is whether they will now adopt a new theory that explains every misfortune: Sugagā, a play on Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s successor.
A theory alleging that covid-19 was planned by the elite (noun)
It can be hard to keep conspiracy theorists hooked
Until May, Mikki Willis was best known for posting “heartwarming” viral clips of his son online. His latest video is less adorable, yet even more popular. In “Plandemic”, Willis learns the apparent truth about covid-19 by interviewing Dr Judy Mikovits, a discredited scientist who is worshipped in the anti-vaccine movement.
In the “documentary”, Mikovits outlines her view that a malevolent global elite caused the pandemic in order to grab power and money (no points for originality there), that covid-19 came from laboratories – including one in Wuhan in China – and that wearing a face mask can “activate” the virus. In theory, her version of covid-19 sounds like a John Grisham novel, but her web of intrigue is so convoluted, and the 26-minute video of her talking so eyelid-droopingly dull, that most viewers will nod off before they can be radicalised.
Though social-media platforms removed it for spreading dangerous lies, the video had already circulated widely (and is still available in some murkier corners of the internet). One post on YouTube racked up 7m views and anti-lockdown protesters in America were soon holding signs emblazoned with its title. “Plandemic” joins other conspiracy theories that blame the virus on everything from 5g phone networks to Bill Gates. As these have spread, so has scepticism of masks and vaccines. In her bestselling book “Plague of Corruption”, Mikovits compares herself to Galileo and Martin Luther King Jr. That said, even conspiracy theorists can lose interest. The sequel to “Plandemic”, a video released in August and laughably named “Plandemic: Indoctornation”, sank almost without a trace.
Голубое лобби Blue lobby
A secret cabal of lgbtq people (noun)
Prejudice and pride in Russia
The “blue lobby”, so the story goes, is a clandestine organisation with cells embedded deep within the Russian government, entertainment industry and the Russian Orthodox church. Its aim? To destroy “traditional family values”: all members are lgbtq, and are working to bring themselves more power.
It’s an unusual conspiracy theory. The shadowy cabal is said to have taken control of the Communist Party in Soviet times. Devotees reckon that it’s more powerful than ever today, even though Vladimir Putin’s government is renowned for its homophobia. The Russian authorities consistently fail to investigate physical assaults on gay people; and in 2013 the government passed a law banning “gay propaganda”: anything that presents homosexuality as normal.
The “blue lobby” theory is attributed partly to Andrey Kurayev, a deacon in the Russian Orthodox church who became famous for protesting against Madonna concerts in Russia. Long before Kurayev, though, the word “blue” (goluboi) was a derogatory term for gay men. As with many homophobic insults, the label has been reclaimed by the lgbtq community. It could still take some time before they convince the country that blue lives matter, however.
ILLUSTRATIONS HEATHER LANDIS