Comorbidity of two social disorders
“Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality”
—Theodor W. Adorno, 1950
The Covid-19 pandemic that started in early 2020 has brought to attention an odd alliance between violent extremists and Covid deniers and conspiracists. Violent extremist groups have embraced and actively engaged in spreading health-related conspiracy theories, and Covid conspiracists have called for and, on some occasions, committed acts of violence. While even before the pandemic the intersection between conspiracism and violent extremists had been investigated by scholars, the pandemic has highlighted the need for more thorough examinations of this issue.
The most salient commonality between extremism and belief in conspiracy theories is that both are potentially deadly social disorders. The lethality factor is vividly visible in extremism, given enormous media coverage of acts of terror. With conspiracy theories this is not the case to the same degree. The warning of the Director- General of the World Health Organization (WHO) provides some context: “[W]e’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic [emphasis mine]. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.”1 Belief in misleading information and conspiracy theories has health implications: it erodes trust in scientists and governmental institutions and leads to lower vaccination intentions, decreased preventative behaviours, and delayed treatment. For example, misperception about vaccines leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and threatens public health,2 and belief in Covid-19 conspiracies results in lower adherence to government guidelines and less willingness to be diagnosed or vaccinated.3 It is estimated that belief in misleading information about the curing effects of highly concentrated alcohol on Covid-19 resulted in around 800 deaths in 2020.4 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost the majority of Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations, and deaths occur among the unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.5 As another example, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, said that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.” Based on this conspiracy theory, Iran rejected US- or UK-made vaccines, leading to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths.6
Despite these shocking numbers, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories still have considerable followers around the world. Australia is no exception: a survey by The Guardian and the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project conducted in August 2020 indicates that 18% of Australians believe COVID-19’s fatality rate has been exaggerated, 23% think it was developed by some powerful forces in the business world, 21% expressed concern about the supposedly harmful effects of vaccines being kept under wraps, and 33% are convinced a cabal of global elite is running the world.7
In addition, health conspiracies have become a central theme in violent extremism, enabling “new forms of terrorism”, as warned by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.8 Examples are many: from the attack on the US Capitol by followers of QAnon in January 2021, to the 2020 Christmas Day bombing in Nashville, and attacks on 5G cell towers all over the globe. Further, research shows that Covid-19 lockdowns have a role to play: “in states that have had local stayat- home orders in place for 10 or more days, there has been a 21% average increase in engagement with violent extremist content.” 9
Conspiracy theories constitute the core of violent extremist messaging. The alt-right terrorist attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, which resulted in the deaths of 51 Muslim worshippers, was justified by conspiracies such as that of the Great Replacement, a conspiracy theory alluding to the intentional demographic change of Europe by Muslims among others. The popularity of such theories is alarming. According to a report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) in London, 1.48 million social media posts referred to the Great Replacement in the seven years preceding the Christchurch attack (2012–2019) in English, French, or German.10 In the same vein, the Covid-19 pandemic has seen a surge in antisemitic violence, mostly driven by conspiracy theories.11 The historical precedent is shocking: Jews were blamed for the bubonic plague in the fourteenth century as well as the influenza pandemic of 1918– 1920. Indeed, researchers have linked the rise of the National Socialist Workers’ Party in Germany and antisemitic sentiment in the wake of the influenza pandemic as a response to the disproportionately high death rates of Germans in that pandemic, which was blamed on Jews.12
The problems of violent extremism and conspiracy theories are multifaceted, complex, and highly distributed and diffused.13 Likewise, a variety of approaches are adopted to investigate these intersections between conspiracists and extremists.14 However, there is no single universal theory that explains any of these questions. Scholars from diverse disciplines have highlighted various aspects of these phenomena from their own perspectives and implemented different methodologies ranging from sociological to psychological and political. This article should not be taken as a sweeping theory to explain these two phenomena but only an attempt to elaborate on and highlight one important and less visible aspect of their underlying narratives: that of the common psychological processes and thinking patterns behind them. It argues that susceptibility to pandemic conspiracies is fed by and a result of (among other factors) the same psychological vulnerability that makes many prone to extremist narratives. Drawing on dual process theories of cognition, this article starts with a short theoretical overview of how the brain deals with complexity. Then it proceeds to explain each of the four contributing factors that underlie thinking patterns in conspiracists and violent extremists: uncertainty and the need for cognitive closure (NFCC), certitude, attitude extremity and polarisation, and narrativity.