The Storm is Here: can Australia prevent the conspiracy sphere metastasising into fatal disease?

Nov 1, 2022
Journalist documenting war and conflict

Sometimes it takes a war correspondent to cast light on what is happening at home.

The New Yorker’s Luke Mogelson has just published The Storm is Here relating the inside story of the pandemic-era upsurge of violence on the right in the US. He compares the nightmares faced by the people he covered in wars “fuelled by injury” in Afghanistan and Syria with the wars fuelled by “delusion” at home: “In the US by contrast, almost everybody I met that said they were willing to fight and die for their cause were mainly animated by a fear of total phantoms and fabricated antagonists.”

The same forces are in play in Australia: desperate people, stoked with existential dread at the crimes of the Elites, exacerbate each other’s sense of victimhood. They falsely claim the pandemic was manmade, and vaccines intended to control them or kill them slowly. They celebrate their pure blood and sperm. They wondered if they felt sick after gathering unvaccinated because the government had sprayed them with toxins. (Because conspiracies are unfalsifiable, every consequence of stupidity becomes fodder for paranoia.)

As in America, grifters of the political, media and influencer spheres manipulate their fear and confusion. United Australia and One Nations politicians repeat the American talking points, even supported by some Coalition politicians. Aspiring political parties on that “freedom” spectrum spruik the conspiracies full-throatedly. News Corp talking heads utter the polite versions, while The Spectator’s radicalising Australian wrap ties the conspiracies to the Orbanist culture wars. Ramshackle “news” outlets on YouTube promote the community’s wildest fantasies as fact.

The Herald Sun recently recounted in apparent shock that the Neo Nazi movement is growing in Victoria. It blamed the rise on the pandemic rather than its own support for hysterical responses to local and world events. The masthead omitted having granted credit to the movement by platforming its figureheads and fostering its bigotry.

The global nation of ethnonationalists is borderless. Disinformation and extremism are pervasive on the various platforms of the internet. People who’ve been radicalising the susceptible on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Reddit over the pandemic era send their new followers over to the Telegram encrypted app to continue the radicalisation untrammelled.

Overt National Socialists spread QAnon messaging on Twitter that the Elites are murdering children in basements, probably because Elites is code for Jewish people. On Facebook, antivaxx conspiracy theorists are blaming Victorian Premier Dan Andrews for weather engineering the floods to boost his election chances. Apparently the Elites are clearing Australia’s east coast for the construction of dystopian Smart Cities that will cram humanity into close confinement to enforce low energy consumption, and where we will eat insect protein.

As America showed us on January 6 2020, it is difficult to assess the reach and intensity of this conspiracy thinking until those inculcated turn up on the doorstep of democracy, armed for insurrection. Certainly some of the material is part of a game (which is how the QAnon idea of a deep state leaker began). The fact that the radicalised walk the line between believing outrageous ideas and tempting the normies to swallow that they believe nonsense makes it difficult to disentangle. Those studying Trump’s election lies, for example, find it hard to determine what percentage of the 64% of Republicans who believe that Biden stole the election are genuinely in the camp and how many “believe” it as a tribal marker. The set known as “trolls” make life miserable online, spreading outrageous bigotry and abuse, with laughter at the earnest as their prime goal. Trump has been known as the king of the trolls.

The internet has provided solace for the isolated for many years now, bringing together people who might despair that they are alone in the world. It has promoted information and insight into problems that the dominant media ignore or fail to tackle. It is also, however, a tool for the dangerous. Far more effective than dropping flyers behind the Iron Curtain or conversations at one’s religious centre, social media fosters political interference and radicalisation.

This builds on the human predisposition to find easy answers, straightforward villains and familiar narratives in the overwhelming complexity of the world’s trials. A population trained to pursue constant thrills and excitement needs more dramatic answers than the mundane inertia of people failing to make the right decisions. Too many of us long for adrenaline and have no idea of the misery of living in “interesting times.” The conspiracy theory narratives allow groups to depict themselves as the victims of a new Holocaust. Always they are the victims, disguising their selfishness and bigotry with a stolen gravitas and dignity.

The issues driving the panics are protean rather than ideologically defined. Mogelson recounted being at anti-lockdown rallies in Michigan with “Patriot” protesters pouring scorn on the “jackbooted Nazis,” police and state troopers taking people’s freedom. He returned to the same protests run by the same people after three weeks’ absence covering the death of George Floyd to find them ardently in support of “the Blue” against Black Lives Matter. The sense of persecution is the point, rather than the enemy selected to destroy.

Some of them, in Australia as well as the US, are “accelerationists.” Far right extremists who believe the system is rotten, and it is only by accelerating its destruction that a better (ethno) state can be rebuilt. They are reckless about which trouble they support, as long as it will speed the destruction of society as it stands.

The chaos at work is captured in one of Trump’s generals, Michael Flynn. He is now the headliner on the ReAwaken America touring show where he promotes an evangelical battle of good versus evil, QAnon, Trump’s election victory, and hints at violent revolution. The point is that his friends cannot determine whether he is grifting to pay his fees, disgruntled at his failures in government, damaged by his war experience, mentally unwell or a true believer. The impact of his rhetoric is toxic, regardless of his motivation.

The fear and rage of the movements are dangerous. The author of a recent study on violent extremists and the threat to US infrastructure pointed out that the wannabe terrorists were mostly “knuckleheads,” but that they only have to get lucky occasionally to be a serious problem. The same threat is growing here. The wild movie plot conspiracies should not be ignored because they are ludicrous.

Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts showed that, in Berlin in 1933, a mere weeks-long absence on a business trip was enough to return to see one’s circle radicalised into Nazism. It only takes a figure like Trump, who understood so astutely which grievances to activate, to turn a society in trouble into one on the brink.

Australia has a Labor government trying to shore up our protections. It will take more, however, than establishing government accountability to protect us. The climate emergency’s disasters will provoke further fear and anger, and we must guard ourselves from the wrong figure metastasising our fledgling conspiracy sphere into a fatal disease.

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