What Job is a Conspiracy Theory Doing?

Saturday morning, I saw a post from my friend, Brandon, who lives in Manhattan, the early epicenter of the pandemic in the US. It showed a scrawled subway wall note that said:

“Covid 19 was fake. Oprah Ellen and others been arrested for being perverts so they make us stay home while they are on trial.”

I wasn’t aware of this particular conspiracy theory so I googled around until I learned that it’s a variant on another I had heard of. In this one, Bill Gates caused coronavirus as a cover to spread vaccination based tracking microchips. In this new version, Ellen and Oprah are secretly pedophiles who are under house arrest and they created the pandemic scare to make the rest of us have to stay home so no one will notice that they are on house arrest.

I know. It sounds crazy. How could anyone believe this?

I think that’s the wrong question if you want to understand what conspiracy theories like this mean.

A better question is: what work does this story do for the person who believes it and shares it?

If Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey are in control of the pandemic then that means human beings, powerful, rich and famous though they may be, are in control of what is happening and there’s still hope that humans could reverse it.

Meanwhile our best clinicians and scientists are telling us that there’s a lot we don’t know and advising as we learn more each day. And if you pay attention to what we are learning it can be terrifying. What’s more, the world most of us have inhabited since birth —a world where science has made humanity mostly untouchable by the natural world— seems to have gone away overnight. We are feeling exposed to a new threat that is not well understood and our best hope of developing a cure is months or years away. We are exposed to the chaos of a random mutation in a virus we can’t see, threatening to tear down all we have built for our families and our nations and our species. We are staring into an abyss and feeling how vulnerable we had really been all along.

In the old days we told stories about how we were suffering because of the agendas or displeasure of unseen gods and deities. Those stories did similar work then. They left the door open for us to have some control over forces that threaten to roll over us like tidal waves. Now we blame Bill Gates and Oprah because it is somehow less terrifying than staring directly at our weakness and vulnerability and facing what we must do to care for one another and rebuild our shelter against the chaos.