As the Covid-19 vaccine rolls out, so to do the often bizarre and outlandish narratives of global conspiracy theorists whose arguments during the pandemic have been harnessed for malign political ends. Foreign Editor David Pratt reports.

For most of us the news that a coronavirus vaccine is here comes like an early Christmas present. While there might be a few niggling concerns about the speed at which the vaccine has been produced, that won’t stop the vast majority taking their place in the queue and rolling up a sleeve when it comess for them to receive the jab.

Across the globe, getting life back to some semblance of “normality” is at the forefront of most people’s minds and the vaccine presents a first real step in doing just that.

But there are those for whom the vaccine represents something else entirely. I’m not talking here about people with understandable and legitimate worries about its potential side effects or uneasy with the speed of its delivery, but those for whom the arrival of the vaccine represents a tangible manifestation of something far more sinister.

Those, for example, who subscribe to the baseless conspiracy theory, known as the “Great Reset”, which claims a group of world leaders orchestrated the pandemic to take control of the global economy.

Then there are those who claim that the vaccination will result in people being implanted with a microchip that will be used to track them, or who make false and fantastical claims the shots can alter a recipient’s DNA ,or that they will contain tissue from aborted foetuses.

Ever since the start of the pandemic, conspiracy theories and coronavirus have gone hand in glove even if such theories have been around a lot longer than Covid-19.

As Yuval Noah Harari, the Israeli historian, philosopher and bestselling author of Sapiens has pointed out, conspiracy or global cabal theories have been around for thousands of years and take different shapes and forms. But their basic structure remains the same.

“Global cabal theories argue that underneath the myriad events we see on the surface of the world lurks a single sinister group ... the group controls almost everything that happens, while simultaneously concealing this control,” explained Harari, writing recently in the New York Times

“The identity of this group may change. Some believe the world is secretly ruled by Freemasons, witches or Satanists; others think it’s aliens, reptilian lizard people or sundry other cliques,” Harari continued, outlining how such theories are able to garner large followings in part because they offer a single straightforward explanation to countless complicated processes.

As Harari illustrates it doesn’t matter whether it’s the war in Syria, the development of 5G technology or Covid-19. “It’s obviously part of the conspiracy.”

Other experts agree that such theories provide a kind of reassurance, albeit totally misguided, whereby as Harari says, individuals are able to “understand” and have a key to “unlock all the world’s mysteries” as part of an exclusive cabal of fellow believers. There is, in short, no need for real experts because the conspiracy provides all the answers.

But while such thinking has long been around, how it features in our current digital online world is new, taking the form of “conspiracy without the theory”, say political scientists Nancy L Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead, co- authors of the book A Lot Of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism And The Assault On Democracy.

What these authors mean by this is that proponents of today’s conspiracies have effectively cast aside the need for evidence or explanation – and make their claims as unequivocal and incontestable fact.

If that sounds familiar then perhaps it’s because such behavioural traits have become a hallmark of one of the world’s most high-profile people, US president Donald Trump.

“Their charges take the form of bare assertion: ‘The election is rigged!’ Yet the accusation does not point to any evidence of fraud. Or take Pizzagate, the claim that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-trafficking ring in a pizzeria in Washington, DC. It doesn’t connect to a single observable thing in the world, it’s sheer fabulation,” the authors explained in an interview last year with The Economist.

Both scholars are convinced that in America at least this “new conspiracism” has come directly from the president and the way Trump has deployed his office to impose his compromised sense of reality on the nation. That, in turn, has spread to other countries, resulting in a global network of believers easily connected through social media and other online platforms.

Perhaps no group has epitomised this more than QAnon. Originating in the US, at its simplest QAnon is described by the BBC as a “wide-ranging, unfounded conspiracy theory that says that President Trump is waging a secret war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government, business and the media”.

QAnon believers have speculated that this fight will lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed.

But as experts point out, there is so much more to the group’s outrageous and often contradictory assertions that draw on everything from historical fact to numerology to make what most onlookers would regard as ridiculously far-fetched claims.

“It’s just this amorphous blob of conspiracy that can adapt to any situation,” says Kevin Grisham, the associate director of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. “When things change, the story changes, too,” The Washington Post quoted Grisham as saying recently.

It was back in 2017 that an anonymous user put a series of posts on the online message board 4chan.

The user signed off as “Q” and claimed to have a level of US security approval known as “Q clearance”. Often written in cryptic language these messages became known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”, and were riddled with pledges, slogans and pro-Trump themes.

In the past few years this online traffic increased across social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and YouTube with the Covid-19 pandemic only adding to the numbers of followers looking to explain away the presence of the virus and those they perceive to be “responsible”.

While for most people it’s easy to see QAnon as cranks, the FBI last year classified the group as a domestic terror threat.

So, what does the existence of such a bizarre group tell us about America’s social and political culture right now and where does QAnon sit within those parameters both in the US and beyond?

“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” says Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic magazine.

“But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values,” wrote LaFrance earlier this year as QAnon’s influence spread.

“The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging,” added LaFrance. “The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory, but the birth of a new religion.”

With Trump central to the thinking of QAnon, perhaps it’s no surprise that just prior to the US election a report carried out by the UK-based advocacy group HOPE not hate that campaigns against racism and fascism found a “depressingly high awareness and support” for conspiracy theories in the US, including those of QAnon.

The report found that roughly one in 10 Americans were engaged with QAnon beliefs, with 4.6 per cent of respondents explicitly identifying as “strong supporters” and 5.4% as “soft supporters”.

But in the wake of Trump’s election defeat observers more recently insist that in America at least QAnon’s influence has waned as a result. That said, its influence is still being felt both in America but especially overseas where has been harnessed by right-wing groups and those opposing the coronavirus vaccine.

As one report in The Washington Post highlighted, spurred by the pandemic, QAnon has spread globally, mixing with local causes and spawning new communities abroad.

“Some experts out there were thinking that if the president loses the election in November, this might go away, but in reality, because it is transnational, it has legs of its own,” says Marc-André Argentino, a leading QAnon researcher who is a PhD candidate at Montreal’s Concordia University.

Speaking to the newspaper just a few weeks ago, Argentino told how he had had tracked QAnon to more than 70 countries and many types of users, including hardcore extremists and Instagram influencers new to the world of conspiracy theories. This is especially the case in Europe.

Chine Labbe is European Union (EU) managing editor for NewsGuard, an organisation that monitors and rates the trustworthiness of information websites and which has published a detailed report on QAnon in Europe. She says the group’s meta-conspiracy is easily translatable be it in London, Paris Berlin, Rome or elsewhere.

“For the French, it will involve Macron being described as a pawn of the Deep State. For the Germans, it will be Merkel who’s a puppet of the Deep State,” Labbe told Euronews recently.

Germany has been a particular cause of concern. There, an increasingly radicalised movement of virus sceptics has been embraced by the country’s far-right extremist groups and energised by global conspiracy theories put forth by QAnon.

German security officials fear far-right extremists will gain recruits and draw more demonstrators to violence, with reports that bomb and weapon-making instructions have already been circulating in coronavirus-sceptic circles online.

A few months ago, Berlin saw a massive rally that brought together far-right supporters, anti-vaccination activists and others who oppose government lockdown and mask directives. While Germany’s ban on displaying the more recognised symbols of extremism was observed, QAnon’s theories and symbols were very much evident.

“We are just witnessing the birth of a new nation and this is just the beginning. A new world is coming,” the message on one prominent German QAnon website is said to have read, according to the online magazine Politico.

As the availability of the vaccine begins, social media companies have stepped up their efforts to start removing false claims and health-related misinformation about it. Last Thursday, the Financial Times reported that on Twitter there was a more than 200% increase in vaccine-related misinformation from October to November, according to social media monitoring group VineSight.

QAnon is only part of the story here with other disparate communities from New Age to more mainstream groups coming together in opposition to the vaccine and officials have real concerns over just how pervasive such misleading messages about the immunisation programme will be.

“Because there are some legitimate anxieties and uncertainties, people are more susceptible to it,” says Chine Labbe at NewsGuard. “We’re really afraid we’re going to see a big wave of misinformation over the next few months.”

Such fears of how misinformation impacts the pandemic and efforts to tackle it have long worried global health officials. It was back in February that World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared that there was “an infodemic”, adding fake news “spreads faster and more easily than this virus”.

Untrue and outlandish as the majority of claims are from groups like QAnon, there remains no shortage of those ready to buy into their narrative.

“Conspiracism comes with a claim to own reality. That’s the scenario we worry about most, one that obliterates a common world of facts and public reasoning,” say political scientists Rosenblum and Muirhead.

Both, however, remain confident that the outright lies and misinformation peddled by conspiracy-theory proponents will be seen for the toxic and often dangerously misleading narrative that they are – and treated accordingly by the wider public.

“We expect that most citizens will fight the disorientation of conspiracist unreality and stand by the common-sense world of reliable facts and arguments,” they attest.

In the coming weeks and months, as the coronavirus vaccine becomes available to us all, it’s hard to imagine – niggling doubts aside – many of us refusing to take up the protection it offers. But even as we do it’s equally certain the conspiracy theorists will keep up their bizarre, outlandish campaign with others seizing their own opportunity to use it for their own malevolent political ends.