I have been confronting cults and extreme beliefs
I am not a person who’s interested in cults or extreme beliefs. I’ve always prided myself on being reasonable and balanced. So, I was shocked when I realized how close I came this past year to joining a cult with extreme beliefs. That cult is QAnon. I could have fallen prey to the QAnon movement because the group has been targeting the wellness community.
QAnon is a term we’ve become familiar with over the past year for a variety of reasons. Maybe you were watching when Trump refused to disavow QAnon at a presidential debate. Or maybe you know a well-meaning friend or family member who shared a QAnon informed meme on social media. In any case QAnon and its conspiracy theories have hit the mainstream in a huge way over the course of 2020.
I am only now realizing how deeply QAnon has taken root in our cultural landscape. I have always thought of QAnon followers as being far right extremists that had no connection to me or my worldview in any way, shape, or form. But, I was wrong! In fact, there are major connections to the wellness community and the QAnon movement. So much so, I can honestly say I very easily could have been brainwashed by QAnon conspiracy theories.
The wellness community
I consider myself to be a member of the wellness community. No one gave me a membership card that said wellness community member. But, over the years my beliefs have always aligned with the wellness communities. I like organic foods because they are better for the environment. Also, I use natural health and beauty products whenever possible because I believe they are safer than products with chemicals. In addition to all that, I follow a number of wellness influencers to stay up to date on current wellness trends.
I started this wellness-driven blog in an attempt to keep sane while my life was thrown into chaos as a result of Covid19. Almost a year ago now, my former, naive-self thought I would be making fun DIY videos and creating resources that contributed to the wellness community. On my journey to create this content, I discovered the wellness community has evolved. In fact, the community that embraces wellness has been evolving for some time now.
Beliefs about health and safety
Let’s backup to February of 2020. I was managing the membership department of a children’s entertainment center in Chicago. If you live in a large city and have young children you are probably familiar with a company similar to the one I was working for. Our customers were working professionals who sent their children to our preschool or attended our daily enrichment classes. I have worked with young children and their families for the better part of the last decade. It was not uncommon in my management role to get questions about the company’s vaccine policy. Then in February of 2020, seemingly out of nowhere, I began getting questions about our illness policy in relation to the Coronavirus.
It is hard to believe, but a year ago I had little idea of what Covid19 entailed. So, when I had to field questions from concerned parents about what we would do if someone at our children’s center caught the virus, I didn’t know what to say. I used to think that children got sick and that was just an unfortunate fact of life. Hand, foot, and mouth disease broke out at every daycare center I had ever worked. And while it was unpleasant, ultimately everything always ended up okay. So, I wasn’t overly concerned about Covid19 at that time and believed there were far worse things for children’s health.
Frankly, I’ve never been a huge fan of vaccines. I received all of the recommended vaccines as a child. And, even prior to the Covid19 outbreak, had I been a mother, I would have fully vaccinated my child. Still, I wouldn’t have felt warm and fuzzy about the vaccines. This is because I do not fully trust the FDA’s ability to make or enforce regulations that keep us safe. There are several reasons I believe the FDA cannot be fully trusted and I will dig into those reasons in another blog. But, suffice to say, I have traditionally been someone who prefers natural treatments over those that are manufactured, whenever possible.
However, it is becoming less and less possible to avoid using drugs to keep ourselves healthy. For instance, with vaccines, I have seen first hand how awfully measles affects children. I encourage you to google photos of children infected with measles to give yourself a sense of the trauma if you are unfamiliar. It is a constant calculation between the risk/reward of a drug and increasingly the rewards outweigh the risks in my opinion.
Isolation fueled crazy conspiracy theories
Jumping slightly forward in our timeline to April of 2020. All of my beliefs about health, safety and government regulation were confronted in a huge way with Covid19. The world was in lockdown and this deadly virus was spreading with a terrifying speed. I lost my job and moved out of my apartment because I could no longer afford to keep living there. To summarize, I was scared, broke, and isolated.
As I mentioned in the beginning, I started this blog at that time in an effort to process my feelings in a healthy way. Most of us are now familiar with the term doom scrolling. I spent hours upon hours doing this last spring. Before Covid19 and the lockdown, I spent little time on social media. That all changed during the lockdown. I was spending so much time on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube my screen time tracker was sending me alerts to cutback.
Do you want to know the first conspiracy theory I got hooked into? The theory that Covid19 was created in a lab in China. I am going to go out on a limb right now and say that I am still not fully convinced this isn’t true. Judge me however you’d like for that! But, what happened to me after going down the rabbit hole of researching this topic illustrates how innocently one can become indoctrinated into conspiracy theories.
Social media and conspiracy theories
It all started with targeted Facebook Ads suggesting pages that I might enjoy based on searches I had done about China’s response to the new strain of CoronaVirus. On one of the pages I checked out, I found a lot of discussion about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. This was a huge red flag for me! I had vaguely heard about the Pizzagate and filed it away in the back of my mind as nonsense. But, now it all seemed so different. It was being discussed as fact in a forum of people whose beliefs aligned with my own. So, I did a little more research on the topic. In hindsight, I now see how anyone could read these posts and begin to question what they thought to be true.
I am the type of person who is open to believing that China may have been manufacturing variations of Coronavirus for nefarious reasons. Me, that reasonable and balanced person who is open minded but not extreme. In a world where social media does not exist, I would have kept being that reasonable person. I would have had to search out extreme viewpoints on Covid19. But, due to Facebook’s algorithmic capabilities, I was referred to other pages where like-minded individuals were discussing some of the conspiracy theories I was interested in.
Here is a short description of the content I received if you have never encountered a wellness Facebook page. The discussion is very polite. In fact, these pages all have a monitor(s) who police content and unfriend (or remove) users for violating the pages rules. So unlike Reddit or the comments you would read under a posted NBC news article, there are no arguments. For the most part people post content or ask questions or for recommendations that are inline with the page’s theme. It is not like you click on the page and see a bunch of posts that are clearly conspiracy theories. Rather, those theories are peppered into the discussion. “What’s the best way to bring my succulents back to life? I accidentally over-water them” someone might ask. And the answer will be “Just give them a moment to recover from the water. Then check your 5G and EMF levels.” Leaving the reader wondering what the heck EMF and 5G are or has to do with plants. So, the researching begins and you fall deeper and deeper down the rabbithole of misinformation.
At first, I found Facebook’s recommendations to be extremely helpful. It had been years since I engaged on their platform in any significant way. Now, I had a page set-up for my new blog and was regularly posting articles about wellness. Using several of Facebook’s recommendations, I was joining new groups and promoting my page. As far as I could tell, everything was great. I was connecting with new and interesting people at a time when I was physically isolated from my friends and family.
Social media echo chambers
When I first noticed Pizzagate comments in one of my Facebook groups, I cringed, did a little research then left that group. However, it was a relatively short amount of time before someone from another group sent me a message with a link to a video made by an anti-vaccine advocate. I happened to be very familiar with this advocate (that I am intentionally not naming because I do not want to give her any more attention). This person links vaccines to autism and, judging from the video I was sent, has spiraled into some new crazy conspiracy theories.
Still, this all seemed innocent enough to me. The internet (especially Facebook) is filled with extremists trying desperately to grow their audience. As I said above, I don’t love vaccines and I don’t fully trust the FDA. So, the search algorithms were working. I was connecting with like minded individuals and we were sharing information that supported our worldviews. Yeah, it was a little more extreme than I was used to encountering. But, all the information I received was close enough to my personal beliefs that I kept coming back for more.
Conspiracy theories that are too crazy
Another common conspiracy theory which I was repeatedly confronted by was the claim that Covid19 was no worse than the flu. The claim is that influenza kills more people during flu season than Covid could. However, the media is scaring us into believing that Covid is so deadly that we need to get vaccinated. This conspiracy theory is well received by an audience that already is skeptical of vaccines.
I am critical of vaccines, but I also know people who have died from Covid19. I know people who are long haulers, suffering long-term effects of Covid. So, I become angry when someone tries to convince me that this virus is “just a little flu”. I do not believe that taking the right mixture of essential oils is enough to protect me from catching the virus. In fact, I want to get vaccinated against Covid19 and will take that shot as soon as it is available to me. Though, I can be honest and say that I am not confident the vaccines are totally harmless to my health.
But, what if I had not known anyone who died of Covid19? Way back in February of 2020, I was one of those people who thought that Coronavirus was basically the flu with a fancy new name. I easily believed that the media blows things out of proportion because that leads to better ratings. Would I have been more inclined to believe Covid19 is just one big conspiracy to vaccinate the world and make pharmaceutical companies rich?
Confronting crazy conspiracy theories
Today, I am confronting all the crazy conspiracy theories that I’ve encountered. As well as the fact that the wellness community has evolved and now encomapses a large number of individuals who believe crazy conspiracy theories. Horrifyingly, a large number of Americans now believe false information. It is especially hurtful to me, knowing that wellness communities have been targets of false information campaigns in the past.
It has become clear with the insurrection of the Capitol, that the Alt-Right has political motivations behind their QAnon conspiracy theories. However, financial incentives also motivate groups to push false claims about our health and safety. I will detail the ways that wellness misinformation is profitable in my next blog.
For now I will leave you with this question: If you are honest with yourself, how likely is it that you could fall prey to a conspiracy theory? The knee jerk reaction would be to say, “Not me! I would never fall for that.” However, you have to question, how many echo chambers of information do you spend time in? How often have you been pulled down the rabbit hole into a vortex of (mis)information?
I’ve referenced the Social Dilemma in several blogs since watching the documentary on Netflix. But, truthfully I felt like I was somehow above the manipulation of social media. Now, it is time for me to confront the part I play in consuming and sharing misinformation. It is my personal responsibility to question and challenge what I deem a fact and what is someone’s opinion or theory.