Conspiracy Theories and Populism at times of Covid-19

Written for the Initium - One of the first days after the lockdown
in Italy, my family organised a lunch with some of our relatives that we had
not seen in a while. It was finally time to get together again in harmony, to
bring up our stories from the lockdown, to share what we have felt and what we
thought in that period. After eating and drinking a couple of glasses of wine,
a relative of mine started to tell me how she felt cheated by this all story of
the corona-virus. 

‘Did you hear what that nano-pathologist
said?’ she said referring to Stefano Montanari, an Italian researcher with a
degree in pharmacology who got popular spreading counter-information about
Covid-19. ‘He said that the virus is artificial and was made in a Chinese lab.
He said that the virus is a hoax and that the pandemic was made up to vaccine
the entire world without much controls. I wouldn’t be surprised if they
invented this pandemic to oblige everyone to get injected the vaccine that Bill
Gates is working on. I won’t let my daughters get vaccinated and let the
pharmaceutical industry profit out of our ignorance’ she continued.

Combined with Chinese, evil Bill Gates,
and the dangerous vaccine, those views weren’t new to me. I’ve seen them
popping up on Facebook profiles of people I am connected with, I’ve heard them
in some of the main conspiracy videos which have circulated widely in these
months, such as the video ‘Plandemic’, describing an unsubstantiated secret plot by global elites such as
Bill Gates, to use the coronavirus pandemic to profit and grab political power.
Gates in February had urged the government to start a strong policy response
and called for accelerated work on treatment and vaccine, while the Trump
administration was stating there was no cause for concern. The two
personalities became media-rivals: Gates was advocating for measures to contain
the epidemic before it reached the US, Trump instead was neglecting the problem
like his homolog Boris Johnson did in UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil. 

Today the US is the most-hit state in the
world, with almost 2 million cases and about 110.000 deaths. Uk has the second
highest number of deaths and Brazil is about to become the third. Yet according
to my cousin, there were some ‘strong powers’ benefiting from this situation,
something surely wasn’t transparent and all the sufferings of the lockdown and
the economic losses couldn’t have been inflicted on people just because of this
virus that wasn’t clear at all. She seemed so upset to not be able to listen or
accept critics on her views, therefore I decided to quit the conversation to
save the family’s harmony. 

Some days later I saw her sharing on Facebook a very emotional speech at the Chamber of
Deputies by Sara Cunial,
former 5 Star Movement deputy who is originally from our same
city, Bassano del Grappa. Sara Cunial on May 14th strongly accused the
pharmaceutical multinationals and the foundations working on health to be
making profit out of the emergency. Cunial attacked ‘strong powers’ and industrial
lobbies as well as the technocrats who are now part of the Italian task force
against coronavirus, making clear that the goal of the current situation is
total control and dominion over human beings “turned to slave and deprived
of their sovereignty and freedom”. She continued by blaming the President
of the Republic of being ‘a cultural epidemic of the country’, the WHO and Bill
Gates who is one of its main funder. 

On the speech, Cunial talked about Bill
Gates’ plans of reducing world’ population by 10-15%, to be responsible for
epidemics in India and Africa, to be killing more people with GMO made by
Monsanto and to make business with 5G enterprises. Her speech was shared by
some of my contacts on Facebook. When the lockdown measures were fully eased
and I started to see again many people and friends outside, most of the time I
was finding myself involved in the same discussions, such as: we’ve been
victims of propaganda and media terrorism, the virus was released to implement
policies of surveillance, the truth is conceived, there must be some sort of
plot behind it. 


“Populism and conspiracy theories are
naturally compatible” wrote Léonie de Jonge on a research paper for the
university of Groningen, The Netherlands. “While populists tend to position
themselves against a homogenous, morally corrupt and ‘evil elite’ who seek to
undermine the ‘general will of the people’, conspiracists maintain that public
authorities are malevolent and purposely concealing their evil plans at the
expense of the wider public”. 

The conspiracy persists. In Germany, the
University of Münster, found out about a remarkable rise in the circulation of
post by “alternative media” outlets lacing reports with speculation and
right-wing conspiracy theories in the months of the pandemic. When Angela
Merkel’s doctor became infected and the German chancellor quarantined for two
weeks, far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) spokesman’ Andreas
Albrecht Harlass speculated that Merkel is not only gone but that she will also
never come back. Fake news circulated that she was probably hiding in a bunker
at her country estate in Paraguay. When protests of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy
theorists followed in Germany, AFD has tried to capitalise on the discontent as
a step to move back into the national conversation. A recent poll commissioned
by news magazine Der Spiegel found that almost one in four Germans
voiced, “understanding” for the demonstrations. In the UK, conspiracy
theories linking 5G technology and Covid-19 led to at least 50 assaults of 5G
masts by arsonists, a situation that has repeated in the Netherlands too. In
Spain conspiracy theories were conveyed through the right-wing party Vox,
which is using Steve Bannon’s system of polling, messaging advice, data
targeting and think tank research to spread misinformation about the
responsibilities of the pandemic to amplify the populist party’s support. In
France, a stream of misinformation have spread on social medias, with the
elites and political class under attack, as well as Big Pharma,
globalism, the European Union, open borders. 

One of these people told me that his
doctor has joined the movement started by Sara Cunial: R2020 which has the
slogan of ‘Rebellion, Resistance, Rebirth’. 

I decided to give a call to this doctor,
Pietro Gasparoni, who was happy to be inquired about his ideas. Although Pietro
immediately said he did not support conspiracy theories, scrolling his Facebook
profile I could read comments about this moment defined as ‘totalitarian’,
about the lockdown defined as a ‘farce’ and the virus which ‘is basically not
there anymore’ According to Pietro, who has been working for about 40 years in
internal medicine and now runs a private clinic, ‘this epidemic of coronavirus
is a seasonal epidemic like many others that had happened before”. He said that
it’s better to let data speak: “compared to the influenza of last year, this
year we have had 24.000 deaths less than the previous year. This year, every
evening there was an unjustified alarmism towards this virus” he said. I cannot
confirm the data given me by the doctor, although the Italian National
Institute of Statistics has made a study based on 6866 municipalities (87% of
the total of 7904) declaring that in March 2020 there was a mortality rate
49.4% higher than in the same month in 2019, with the highest numbers in
Lombardy. According to Pietro, “Lombardy was hit most because its the
economic center of Italy, with most airports and people traveling in and out of
China, because of some structural mistakes and delay, because the industry
sector pushed not to close, because of the level of pollution and because of
the 5G technology”. 

Between words, I have the feeling that the
doctor is pointing its fingers to a sort of an unseen power, profiting from
this situation. It’s the same feeling I have when talking with many friends
that didn’t want to buy the official narrative about the virus and the
lockdown. Most of the time people tells me: ‘I don’t know who’s behind it, but
there must be someone wanting this to happen’.

I ask Pietro who he thinks is really
profiting out of this situation. “I am a doctor so this is not my field” he
tells me, “but I believe there are international Big Brothers and strong powers
opposing Donald Trump which are trying to discredit the American president, who
in fact has done surprisingly well in rising USGDP, in improving occupation
and reducing wars compared to the Democrats. The left has been using every
possible card to discredit him: first the most autistic girl probably existing:
Greta Thumberg, who seems to have already disappeared by now, second the
Russia-gate which didn’t work and then Covid-19. ”

According to Pietro, “Trump is
challenged because he hurts the interests of powerful people, despite his
politics are basically ‘humanistic’. At the opposite, in Italy we are ruled by
incapable people who probably trying to build up the project of the Bilderberg
club” he tells me. More on the medicine level, where his field is, Pietro
believes that it does not make sense to make a vaccine for Covid-19 and if
there is a push for it, it means that the vaccine must have some other sinister
scope, such as installing a microchip or something”. 

After our call, I go back to some more
conspiracy stories and videos: the ideas of Pietro fit naturally within. One of
these videos, ‘Revelations: Bill Gates
and ID2020
, explains how Bill Gates is behind a plan to implant trackable
microchips on humans through a global vaccination. The idea connect with a
study funded by The Gates Foundation, that so far has pledged 300$ million to
fight the pandemic, about a technology that could store someone’s vaccine
record in an ink administer at the time of injection, which in fact is a sort
of invisible tattoo. Gates is blamed to have predicted the pandemic 5 years
ago, despite not being the only one: many virologists were aware about a ‘new
big one’ coming. And at a more political level, international relation studies
defines global pandemics as the biggest systemic threats. Yet on the
‘Revelation’ video the only fact that Gates could predict the pandemic is
suspicious enough to accuse him of being behind its spread. 

In the same video I was surprised to see a
sketch with Brett Scott, a fellow journalist from London, author of The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance:
Hacking the Future of Money (Pluto, 2013
), featured while talking on
cashless society. When I call him at the phone, he tells me that he didn’t even
know at the beginning to be featured. Part of a speech he gave at a conference
in Sweden was cut and used to support the conspiracy theories. ‘Both me and
conspiracy theorist believes that there is a top-down war on cash. Both our
views challenge mainstream medias, claiming that the transition away from cash
is not happening organically, but it is being orchestrated. The main difference
between our views is that conspiracy thinkers believes there is a conscious
coordination in the control structure, while what is there is just capitalism,
short terms actors pursuing their business interest without conscious
coordination’ Brett tells me. ‘When I critic the banking system and I say that
there are government who are trying to break down the cash system, these things
are true, but not for the reason that the say they are true. People at the
bottom of the pyramids believe that power comes from above, believing more in a
group of Illuminati rather than in the market system’ Brett continues. 

I asked him why he thinks these ideas
appeal more to certain kind of people. ‘People are baffled by the market system
and they see the world as a storm where to navigate somehow. They feel
disempowered by globalist elites. Rather than comprehending the system structure,
it’s more intuitive and appealing for them to think that things happen because
of the actions of individual people’ Brett explains. ‘In this situation, people
like Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist in the Trump
administration, who criticise banks, corporate and globalist elites using
anti-surveillance theories to generate ring-wing populism can profit and obtain
consensus. People end up believing that there is a coercive controlling power
which seems to come from some external forces’ Brett continues. ‘Is this power
deriving from an alien planet?’ he jokes about. 

Indeed the protests against the so-called
‘strong powers’ blamed to be wanting to control people through the virus have
developed both in US and in Italy. In the last weeks, small groups of people in
Italy have taken the streets to criticise the government response to Covid-19.
One of the groups were the so-called ‘orange
a movement organized by the former general Adriano Pappalardo. The
‘orange vest’ has gathered both in Milan and Rome to criticize the lockdown and
to define the pandemic as a hoax, denigrating the importance of social
distancing measures and the use of face-masks and adding slogans against Europe
and the EU. One of the protesters has been filmed while screaming: ‘We have to
get rid of this government. They invented a bluff, Covid-19 is a hoax. It is
the greatest hoax of history through which the virtual global finance weaken
the states to buy their assets. At that point the crappy Germans and Chinese will
come and they will buy Italy. We are here to defend our country!’ 


Bannon during the Covid-19 pandemic has
been very active on the internet commenting US politics on his “War Room:
Pandemic” blog, denouncing the Chinese communist party, assuming “95 percent
of the economic devastation and 95 percent of the people dead” are of China’s
responsibility and even defining the pandemic as the “Chinese Chernobyl”,
pushing nationalists to openly confront Beijing. “We’re in a war with the
Chinese Communist Party. [The pandemic] has exposed to the world exactly who
they are, what they are, what they will do and what means they will use to get
to the ends they want. They obviously want to become the world’s hegemonic
power, under their totalitarian rule” Bannon said on an interview to The
Wire China
. Bannon’s plan to confront China and weaken the European Union
has been developed also through ‘The Movement’, a transnational network
of far right Euro-skeptic parties in Brussels that has shaped Christianity as a
form of identity ideology as a way to reaffirm the supremacy of the Western
culture over a multipolar and multicultural world. In the same period, a flow
of money of around 1 billion dollar has reached Europe’s ultra-conservatives
from Christian American far-right foundations. On a hilltop abbey in Italy, the
Trisulti Charterhouse, Bannon has put the bases for an academy of
Judo-Christian neo-populist ideologies, the ‘Dignitatis Humanae Institute’,
directed by Benjamin Harnwell, a British conservative who has dubbed Pope
Francis as an ‘enemy of the church’. 

According to Bannon, who considers
Harnwell “the smartest guy in Rome”, the ‘Dignitatis Humanae Institute’
has the scope to educate and identify young leaders, such as Beatrix von Storch
of Germany’s AfD, Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party and Marion
Maréchal, firebrand granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen.The Institute was
directed until recently by Cardinal Burke’s, one of most critical voices
against Pope Bergoglio over divorces, dialogues between religions and reception
of migrants. Burke has defended League’s leader Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s
entrance into the sphere of global religious white-suprematist nationalism can
be remarked by his recent use of religious symbols, such as the ‘immaculate heart
of Mary’, also sanctified by Bolsonaro, during his last electoral campaign. A
return to the historical roots of Europe “in the hands of a distorted
secularism that deletes the symbols of Christian tradition and opens the doors
to the most intransigent islam” is also the position of ‘Brothers of
leader Giorgia Meloni, which party had an incredible rise on the
polls, recently settling at 16.1%. 

Giorgia Meloni is probably the European
leader with the strongest connections with US conservatives. Steve Bannon
offered her help in 2018 “to win the next European elections, with a
central source of polling, messaging advice, data targeting and think tank

On Italy’s Republic day on June 2nd, the
main right-wing parties, including the extreme-right party Brothers of Italy
and Salvini’s Northern League, took the street and organised a flash-mob in
Rome officially for ‘giving voice to the citizens’. The demonstration finally
turned out to be an important gathering, with people not respecting social-distancing
rules, taking selfies with Salvini and with people chanting slogans against the
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and the President of the Republic. 

‘What happened on June 2nd it’s very
interesting to observe,’ Manuel Anselmi, professor of political science at the
University of Viterbo, tells The Initium. ‘I believe populist parties have
tried to see if they could attract consensus from the people who got frustrated
by the government response to Covid-19’. They are trying to understand whether
developing an alternative narrative to the one of Conte’s government can be
fruitful in terms of consensus.’ 

Marco Anselmi, who is also the author of
the book Populism: an introduction, believes that conspiracy theories have
historically flourished where the populist movements are strong. Looking at the
political landscape of Italy, Anselmi is not surprised how strongly these
conspiracy theories have entered into people imagination. ‘The transition
between the First and the Second Republic in Italy, with Berlusconi entering
into politics in 1994, has completely changed the way Italians related to
politics. While in the First Republic there were strong traditional parties
such as Christian Democrats, the Communist Party and the Socialists, in the
Second one different populist parties emerged, creating even a competition
between different populist forces. Berlusconi invented the tele-populism, the 5
Star Movement was the first web-populist party and now the Northern League has
also become web-populism with nationalistic stances. For the individuals the
change was huge: citizens are now exposed to the political complexities that
previously were mediated by big party politics. It’s therefore more complex for
people to manage informations about reality, deprived as they are of any
possible ideological lens’ Anselmi tells me. 

‘People have lost faith in the
institutions and even in the scientists. People get afraid of the vaccine, or
of a possible microchip, because they are scared that even their innermost side
can be reached and controlled. When individuals feels fragile towards a world
they fail to understand, especially in this period of time where liberal
democracies are in deep crisis, they develop paranoid thoughts and individual
anxieties. Such thoughts can hamper the process of democratisation and favor
the development of authoritarian projects’ Anselmi concludes. I just wonder if
all those people I heard in these days opposing the official narrative to
espouse conspiracy theories have any idea about that. 

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