Inside Australia’s hidden conspiracy networks

With a massive rise in online conspiracy theories during the pandemic, the members they have already drawn in are turning to more extreme and outlandish beliefs.

Content warning: Mentions of homophobia, transphobia, racism and abuse.

There is a very real digital pipeline that has already radicalised scores of Australians from being ‘vaccine-hesitant’ to becoming active members of harmful conspiracy networks such as QAnon.

I have spent four months infiltrating online message boards and group chats centred around  conspiracy theories. Starting from an Australian group that provides fake vaccination certificates, I was quickly directed toward far deeper networks with fringe beliefs that grew increasingly detached from reality.

While it’s one thing to have concerns about government control and Big Pharma — or to have a level of scientific illiteracy that makes you wary of Australia’s vaccination program — it is entirely different to categorise it as a project of intentional mass-murder or ‘depopulation’ as many of these groups do. Once you believe the latter, it is an incredibly short jump to ideas that are entirely abstracted from reality, such as Satan-worshipping health officials and government-sponsored harvest of life-prolonging chemicals from the blood of tortured children. 

Despite first joining a Telegram chat group ostensibly focused on false ‘Vaccine Passports’, broader and more insidious conspiracy theories are often sent to the group and draw users further down the rabbit hole. These include climate change denialism, Great Replacement Theory, anti-5G, as well as Adrenochrome theories (the aforementioned chemical harvesting). Links to join other group chats which go into more detail on these theories are periodically sent into the chat, providing a direct method to funnel members into more extreme ideologies. Notably, the vast majority of these are US-focused rather than Australian.

Many of these groups are implicitly or explicitly right-wing. They contain pro-Russian content, as well as theories that ‘trans ideology’ is a result of Satanic and pedophilic ‘elites’. With Australia’s COVID-19 restrictions now almost nonexistent, many conspiracy groups are shifting their focus to alternative topics, such as the idea that monkeypox is an exclusively ‘gay disease’ with bestiality as its source.

This kind of content can make it easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as a right-wing phenomenon. However, this is not always the case. I spoke to Dr Micah Goldwater, a cognitive scientist and senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, who explained the psychological origins of conspiratorial thinking.

“We all try to infer explanations for things all the time,” he explained, citing a scenario many will be familiar with in which upon having a message left on ‘read’, you may start to make assumptions about being ignored.

“A lot of our thinking about the world is in terms of attempted explanations, even if we don’t always articulate what those explanations are.”

Goldwater emphasised that the label of conspiracy theorist should not always be in the pejorative sense, as there are a wealth of very real conspiracies — the CIA supporting coups and assassinations in Latin America, Volkswagen cheating emissions laws, the Watergate scandal and MKUltra. But what makes the believers of these conspiracies different to flat-Earthers, for example?

Put simply, for the latter, a lack of evidence. Within conspiracy  groups, articles from genuine news sources are taken out of context and reframed to support users’ pre-existing beliefs. For example, the headline of an article on Australia’s record low fertility rate is used as evidence for vaccinations as a forced infertility program. This is despite the text of the article attributing this decline to women choosing to have fewer children, as a result of improved education and employment opportunities. In this scenario, reading beyond the headline can be enough to debunk the supposed evidence of a conspiracy theory.

So how do you prove that a conspiracy theory is real? In the case of MKUltra, evidence abounds in the form of declassified documents, academic articles, and reporting from reputable news sources. Individuals with a worldview that trusts and prioritises academic and institutional knowledge are then able to consider this as a proven theory.

However, this same kind of knowledge is often ineffective in debunking more insidious theories. If you truly believe that there is a vast network of governments, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies that are falsifying the safety of vaccines with help from the ‘mainstream media’, then all of the evidence in the world from science and academia will be ineffective in disproving your beliefs.

Conspiracies within these online networks often fail to display a basic level of internal consistency — within the same group chat, you can find information proving that Princess Diana was killed by the Queen, as well as ‘proof’ that she is in fact still alive. To my eyes, it appears that the beliefs of these groups themselves are of secondary importance to simply denying mainstream narratives.

There are a number of factors that can make people more susceptible than others to being drawn into conspiracy networks; particularly when they already feel an uncertainty, anxiety, and lack of agency regarding their own lives. Individuals in these situations are able to fill this anxious gap with the “knowledge” that there is, in fact, a conspiracy going on in the world that they are able to feel certain about and in control of.

This is evidenced by a direct academic link between people who feel a lack of control in their own lives and experience ‘illusory pattern perception’, which consists of finding patterns and shapes in random, static visual-noise when one does not really exist. Individuals who perceive these non-existent patterns are more likely to hold irrational beliefs, including belief in conspiracy theories or supernatural phenomena.

Dr Goldwater noted that successful conspiracy theory movements, such as QAnon, play into this lack of control felt by its followers. For those who buy into the conspiracy that there is a network of elites actively working against them, “you get to simultaneously have the status of persecuted victim, but then also regain agency by participating in the activity of the QAnon community,” said Dr Goldwater.

With fraught global issues such as COVID-19 and capitalist exploitation, it can often be difficult to find rational explanations in the midst of chaotic crises that feel inexplicable. Conspiracy theories offer a catch-all explanation of the world that can help people feel that they have regained control.

As well as regaining a sense of agency, a similar element of conspiracism that helps to bring members deeper is that the conspiracy networks, much like any political group, are also an active social group. People drawn into conspiracy theories are often already socially isolated and therefore rely on fellow conspiracy theorists as their new social group.

When all of your friends believe in a conspiracy theory, you have very little motivation to question it. According to Dr Goldwater, belief in a conspiracy is not only the basis of such a social group, but also allows them to feel like they are of a higher status than other social groups because of the perceived exclusivity of the information they are privy to — a status that only further encourages members to participate. 

An additional predictive factor for those more prone to conspiracism is whether they have an existing overarching worldview. For example, if you are a historical materialist, then you may understand the wrongs of pharmaceutical companies as a part of their for-profit, exploitative nature. Dr Goldwater explains that without an overarching political framework of this sort, it is “not where they put their scepticism, they end up going into this other direction like Bill Gates is putting mind control drugs into [pharmaceutical products].”

Individuals are also more prone to replace their own ideas with that of a conspiracy network if they have renounced their previous worldview — for example, people who have given up on organised religion and are now looking to explain the world around them in a different way.

Dr Goldwater argues that for those who “don’t have a good system of understanding why there’s all this bullshit out there, I think you’re more likely to fall prey to this other kind of explanation”.

This combination of factors also encourages members to continually dive deeper into conspiracy theories. 

“Once [a conspiracy theory] becomes part of your group identity, you’re then motivated to invest more and more in it because it both increases your connection with the group and also maintains internal consistency in a way,” Dr Goldwater explained. 

While this may paint a depressing portrait of conspiracism and critical thinking in Australia, all hope is not lost. For your loved ones who may be prone to conspiracism, Dr Goldwater explains that “pre-bunking” is the most effective prevention method and can act as an “inoculation” against misinformation.

“If you’re aware that there’s bad information spreading, warn people about it before they’re exposed to it.”

And if you think that you yourself might be at risk of believing in conspiracies, keep an eye on your own logic and sources of information. Interrogate your own beliefs with the same rigour that you would to those you disagree with.