The thin line between conspiracy theories and cult worship is dissolving

An information war is being waged.

A policeman instructs men wearing QAnon conspiracy shirts to move along during scattered protests at Alexanderplatz against lockdown measures and other government policies relating to the novel coronavirus crisis on May 16, 2020 in Berlin, Germany.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images
  • Fans of the conspiracy video, "Plandemic," are exhibiting patterns similar to cult worshippers.
  • Conspiracy theories increase during times of social uncertainty and trauma.
  • One researcher says conspiracists are more likely to assess nonsensical statements as "profound."

Birtherism almost seems quaint now. The idea that an American citizen was born in Kenya was never about substance, however. There was no actual debate. As journalist Adam Serwer points out, "Birtherism was, from the beginning, an answer looking for a question to justify itself."

Logic is detrimental to a conspiracist. Facts impede the narrative. If following the thin threads holding birtherism together is too challenging, don't be concerned; That's part of the design. Replace "birtherism" with "Obamagate." Truth is always a sacrificial lamb to power. Whether circulating from the top or bubbling up from down below, conspiracies are about power.

Yet conspiracy theories are a biological inheritance. We will never live without them. Our brain fills in gaps when no evidence is present. As Australian psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky points out, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories were rampant during the bubonic plague.

Trauma accelerate this process. Within two weeks 100,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19. Social media seems uniquely designed to spread misinformation. This collective trauma has fueled a strange marriage of vaccination fears, 5G, Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, Big Brother, anti-Chinese propaganda, and more. Weaving a coherent narrative is exhausting (and impossible). A common refrain appears: It's a power grab.

Discussing the conspiracy du jour that is "Plandemic," Lewandowsky says contradiction is no barrier to entry:

"Conspiracy theorists may also simultaneously believe things that are contradictory. In the 'Plandemic' video, for example, they say COVID-19 both came from a Wuhan lab and that we're all infected with the disease from vaccinations. They're making both claims, and they don't hang together."

Conditions fomenting the conspiracist mindset are debatable. One 2017 study from Union College speculates that the "constellation of personality characteristics collectively referred to as 'schizotypy'" provide the building blocks for conspiracist thinking. While not a clinical diagnosis, lead researcher Josh Hart notes conspiracists are more likely to assess nonsensical statements as "profound." Convincing the converted otherwise is daunting.

How skepticism can fight radicalism, conspiracy theorists, and Holocaust deniers | Michael Shermer

To better understand this mindset we should consider cult worship. My first regular writing beat was as the religion columnist for The Daily Targum. While studying for a degree in religion in the nineties, I interviewed clergy, professors, and students from various faith organizations on the Rutgers campuses. I was struck by how adamantly many believed their position to be right. On rare occasions some expressed humility. Certainty is more likely to gain followers.

These interviews led to my fascination with cults. As with conspiracists, cult worshippers suspend disbelief even when not in their best interest. Their buy-in depends upon a counter-narrative promulgated by a leader: Out there the powers that be are trying to hurt you. You're safe here. Only I can fix this.

Cult leaders exploit anxiety around a shadowy "other" out to get you. While not required, sometimes this other has a form. Ambiguity is a key feature of indoctrination. Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer break this down in their 1993 book, The Guru Papers: Makes of Authoritarian Power.

"What really matters is not so much the specific content of a religion, but how sure one is of its worldview. That is, it's not nearly as important how true or false a belief is as how certain one is of it. All religious certainty is similar in that the beliefs one is certain of coat and comfort fear."

Replace "religion" with "anti-vaccination agenda."

While "Plandemic" seemed to explode out of nowhere, a sophisticated social media campaign created by a QAnon promoter elevated the video. Ambiguity also played a key role, as an LA Times interview with filmmaker Mikki Willis suggests.

Faithful prays for their religious leader Naason Joaquin Garcia, arrested in California, US, facing charges for 26 suspected felonies including human trafficking, rape of minor and child pornography, at the international headquarters of the Church 'La Luz Del Mundo' (Light of the World) in Guadalajara, Jalisco State, Mexico on June 9, 2019.

Photo by Ulises Ruiz / AFP via Getty Images

After Willis admits "Plandemic" is intentionally "conspirational and shocking," the reporter presses him to validate Judy Mikovits's claims. Willis admits leaving in unsubstantiated claims "that could be true, but science hasn't proven it yet"—an effectively meaningless statement. Anything could be true. Science is the process of discovering whether or not a claim holds up.

Truth was never the point. The reporter goes on, "as [Willis] sees it, he is simply offering a necessary alternative to what he calls 'the mainstream narrative.'" Willis himself admitted to another reporter that "Plandemic" is propaganda.

Which narrative? Irrelevant. Suspicion has been expressed. Ambiguity is power.

Matthew Remski specializes in cult dynamics and trauma, predominantly in yoga and Buddhist communities. In his excellent summation of Willis's response, which the filmmaker recorded after "Plandemic" went viral, Remski points out that Willis failed to address his video's content. Instead, he used time-tested cult techniques to sway the observer to his "side."

"In my research on charismatic leadership, many interview subjects report the paradoxical phenomena of the speaker speaking to countless people, while seeming to forge a private connection. Some of this is amplified by the webcam medium, but it's also played up with direct 2nd-person address. As the sermon finds its ultimate/totalistic theme, the diction shifts to first-person plural. The viewer is invited to merge with the speaker. The sermon is about something ultimately important, communicated in close intimacy."

This is Willis's first public message after his video (marketed during the interview as scientific fact) was viewed over eight million times. Mikovits's claims are not presented as speculation. She repeatedly contradicts herself. She probably makes false statements. Doesn't matter. This technique has precedent, having been perfected by our current president over the course of decades: State an absurd or inflammatory idea as possible, let it escalate in the public imagination, then step back and claim no responsibility. Birtherism was a litmus test.

While Mikovits has been doubling and tripling down on her false claims, Willis calls himself an investigative journalist. Releasing an interview with an unvetted subject without researching her claims is the opposite of journalism. "Plandemic" is propaganda masquerading as investigation. The film is perfect fodder for the conspiracist ethos.

Why conspiratorial thinking is peaking in America | Sarah Rose Cavanagh | Big Think

Conspiracy theories are low-beta transmissions—simplistic messages designed to satisfy an answer in search of a question. Tragically, they distract us from real conspiracies, which Lewandowsky says are "usually uncovered by journalists, whistleblowers, document dumps from a corporation or government, or it's discovered by a government agency." Hard work when the public's default response is to yell out "fake news" when their beliefs are challenged. A transmission right from the cult leader's mouth.

"Plandemic" exploits a particular style of paranoid thinking rampant in divergent cultures: Far-right conspiracy theorists like QAnon, anti-vaxxers, and leftist "wellness" advocates. A new cult is forming right before our eyes. While an agenda is not yet clear, identifying leaders is the first step in creating one.

Tara Haelle, senior contributor to Forbes, does an exceptional job explaining how to push back against conspiracy theories like "Plandemic." A comprehensive list of articles debunking the many "facts" presented during the interview is included at the end of the linked post.

Every article I've read about combating conspiracy theories advises to focus your attention on the uninitiated, which is most likely true. Explaining basic vaccine science to a QAnon member likely won't get you far. It's not impossible, however. For a deep dive into saving cult members, check out Steve Hassan's 1988 book, "Combating Cult Mind Control" (it was updated in 2015).

Having been indoctrinated himself, Hassan says that presentation of contradictory evidence often "made me feel more committed to the group." That doesn't make the attempt hopeless, however. Understanding the indoctrination process helps you combat it. Hassan continues,

"Deception is the biggest tool of information control, because it robs people of the ability to make informed decisions. Outright lying, withholding information and distorting information all become essential strategies, especially when recruiting new members."

For the first time in a century, Americans are grappling with a public health crisis involving every citizen. An information war is being waged. This is not the time to be a "keyboard warrior." We have to take a critical but honest look at experts who have devoted their lives to public health. And we need to listen.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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