The thin line between conspiracy theories and cult worship is dissolving

An information war is being waged.

The thin line between conspiracy theories and cult worship is dissolving

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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Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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