27 May 2020
How COVID-19 is driving a booming conspiracy industry
By Elise Thomas
As legitimate newsrooms around the world are crumbling under the financial pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, including at least 157 in Australia since January that have closed temporarily or permanently, the conspiracy industry is booming. It's a dynamic that should have all Australians concerned.
When we talk about conspiracies today, it's often in relation to viral Facebook posts or misinformation on Twitter. That is only part of the story, however. Conspiracies are also an increasingly lucrative moneyspinner for everyone from Instagram influencers and celebrity chefs to long-time professional conspiracists such as Alex Jones or David Icke (if you’re struggling to remember who David Icke is, he’s the former English footballer who says the world is run by lizard people, and who has more recently pivoted to promoting the widespread conspiracy that COVID-19 is linked to 5G).
The COVID-19 crisis has been an unprecedented opportunity for the conspiracy industry, which has rushed to fill the many unanswered questions about the virus and the response to it with an alacrity that legitimate information sources simply cannot match. Good journalism takes time and money, and medical research takes even more, but spinning conspiracies is free and takes only as long as you need to make it up.
Conspiracies have always come with opportunities to make a bit of cash but the internet has provided a raft of new money-making possibilities for figures such as Jones and Icke, and paved the way for the ascensions of the likes of Steve Bannon and Paul Joseph Watson. Low-cost websites allow them to look and sound like news organisations, while social media platforms enable them to reach a vastly wider audience. Digital third-party advertising created a new revenue stream to supplement the age-old strategy of convincing people you have the solutions to their problems available at a low, low price – except instead of snake oil today’s conspiracists are selling $97 electromagnetic field protection hats and colloidal silver frequency water on Etsy.
The market for their wares is growing – a recent poll found significant minorities of Australians, particularly those aged 18-34, were likely to hold conspiratorial beliefs about the coronavirus pandemic. One in five young Australians surveyed believed that Bill Gates played a role in the creation and spread of COVID-19 and the same proportion thought 5G technology was being used to spread the virus.
For those willing to embrace the maxim that all publicity is good publicity, conspiracies have proven to be a great way for fading celebrities and languishing Instagram stars to bump up their numbers. Former celebrity chef Pete Evans, who has previously promoted health misinformation and anti-vaxxer views, took to Instagram after losing his spot on My Kitchen Rules to share content about the QAnon conspiracy to his 231,000 followers. The rush of mainstream media attention that followed, as critical as it may have been, undoubtedly boosted his profile and helped to keep his name in the headlines.
Posted two minutes apart by chef Pete Evans, after an hour his recipe post had received 35 likes, 3 comments and 2 shares; his anti-vaccine conspiracy post had received over 1900 likes, 507 comments and 262 shares. Posted two minutes apart by chef Pete Evans, after an hour his recipe post had received 35 likes, 3 comments and 2 shares; his anti-vaccine conspiracy post had received over 1900 likes, 507 comments and 262 shares. CREDIT:FACEBOOK
Evans continues to share conspiracies interspersed with cooking content on his social media accounts and it’s not difficult to see why. On May 21, for example, Evans made two posts, two minutes apart on Facebook. After one hour, the post on his recipe for ocean trout with minted pea puree had received 35 likes, 3 comments and 2 shares; the anti-vaccine conspiracy post had received over 1900 likes, 507 comments and 262 shares. For celebrities who build careers around social media engagement, those kind of numbers are hard to resist.
The stars have aligned for the conspiracy industry in other ways, too. Whether or not the professional conspiracists believe their own narratives or not (Alex Jones has claimed in court that his years of conspiracy-mongering over the Sandy Hook shooting was a “form of psychosis”, for example) their followers certainly do. Legions of grassroots conspiracy believers share and promote their content, many with the zeal of the newly converted, driving website traffic and merchandise sales.
The conspiracy industry is helped along by influential mainstream figures willing to publicly lend credence to their theories. Anti-vaccine sentiments have been expressed by high profile athletes including NRL players and tennis superstar Novak Djokovic (who later used his Instagram to promote the theory that the power of thought can change the chemical structure of water).
Geopolitical wrangling between the US and China has led to conspiracy theories about the origins of the being virus boosted by both sides, while many of the statements and behaviour of President Trump have been a gift to grifters with miracle "cures" to sell. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has suggested the virus is a "trick" perpetrated by the media and his political opponents, while Madagascar’s President Rajoelina is promoting an unproven herbal remedy as a cure.
The latest body-blows to real journalism in Australia could not have come at a worse moment, as the gears of the conspiracy industrial complex shift into overdrive. The vacuum left by legitimate news and accurate, well-researched reporting will instead be filled with misinformation, half-truths and conspiracies, driven at least in part by an underlying profit motive.
It’s still true that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can put its boots on. The COVID-19 crisis is proving that it can get there more cheaply and make more money at the end of it too. Solving the problems of misinformation and conspiracies will take more than just reader education; it will also require unpicking the business model that powers them.