About a month ago some of the wellness podcasts and Instagram accounts I follow started to go decidedly off-piste.
Instead of recommending a retreat in Bali or new ways to cook with coconut oil, they were posting links about 5G, Bill Gates or more coded but no less strange messages. We shouldnt trust them. The them being a shadowy, authoritarian cabal that controls the media, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the government and the World Health Organization.
In March one usually reasonable podcaster I listen to for health tips started talking about evil forces at work. His guest also knew about the evil forces. They spoke around it, carefully.
Then in April my life coach, a man who mostly advises me about time management and creative projects, told me if a Covid-19 vaccine came along he wouldnt be taking it because, as you know I am very careful about what I put in my body.
Memes turning up on Maga pages were being reposted by yoga teachers who once quoted Maya Angelou but were now quoting David Icke, while health and wellness mega-influencer Pete Evans was posting about Obamagate, inflated Covid-19 death counts and, most bizarrely, that US race riots were instigated by organisations affiliated with the elite alongside recipes for ham hock soup.
What was going on? How and why did the largely progressive and left-leaning proponents of wellness merge with rightwing conspiracy theorists and Donald Trump supporters?
Such unlikely allegiances were termed fusion paranoia in a 1995 New Yorker article by the journalist Michael Kelly, who saw leftwing and rightwing activists coalesce around the anti-war and pro-civil liberties movements that shared common traits of anti-government views and belief in conspiracy theories.
Such a tight alliance (or fusion paranoia) between the wellness industry and the far-right would have been unthinkable to me a year ago. But the connection between the alt-right, conspiracy theorists and sections of the wellness community have strengthened and bonded during global lockdowns. The messages of the different groups are remarkably the same: the virus is a cover for a plot of totalitarian proportions, designed to stifle freedom of movement, assembly, speech and to the horror of some in the wellness industry enforce a program of mass vaccinations.
A popular, multitrillion-dollar sector, the wellness industrys huge reach and influence has the power to bring people into the conspiracy that previously would not have had any contact with the alt-right.
Superstars in the wellness world appear on multiple platforms and have mature, established audiences who may have first followed a wellness influencer for recipes or fitness tips, but are now scrolling through a mixture of quotes by Rumi, Trump and a nurse from Birmingham who has proof Covid-19 death certificates are fake.
The ongoing and now-accelerated collapse of mainstream media has provided a perfect environment for the Covid conspiracies to reach millions of people unchecked and unchallenged.
Disagreement with a conspiracy on an influencers page could have you blocked, in dispute with other followers or, as the logic of conspiracies dictate, mocked and pitied for not getting it and having your mind controlled by the evil forces that you are too dumb to see.
Like many conspiracies or even religions the beliefs are part of a closed system that is engineered to provide answers to our most maddening mysteries but also designed to allow no room for questioning and dissent.
And there are a lot of maddening mysteries about the coronavirus. The gaps in our knowledge about the virus, combined with the speed and urgency of new social control measures that started seemingly overnight in March (essentially global home detention), panic buying and intense levels of collective fear in the community, have meant that previously fringe theories have found a broad, sticky surface.
A poll has found one in five young Australians believe that Bill Gates played a role in the creation and spread of Covid-19, and the same proportion think 5G technology is being used to spread the virus.
In some ways the wellness communitys response to the virus is not a shock.
Although the global wellness industry was worth an estimated $4.5tn in 2018, and pre-pandemic many practices were becoming mainstream, elements of the sector have always been under siege from the mainstream.
This includes those who refuse vaccinations, those who encourage fasting for long periods of time, those who eschew chemotherapy for a raw food diet, and those who believe wifi causes tumours.
Now in this current state of emergency where almost total social control is paramount for controlling the virus purveyors of these views feel they are having their paranoia confirmed.
While herbalists, acupuncturists, yoga studios and alternative medicine practitioners were forced to close in the lockdown in some countries, conventional doctors and pharmacies remained open.
Speech was also monitored, as the more fringe elements of the wellness scene migrated from platform to platform. Like a belligerent orator at Speakers Corner, they kept getting moved on until they either wound up in the darkest corners of the web, or mumbling on podcasts in code about the dark forces they could not name.
While some in the wellness world appear to have had a terrible time of it, the restrictions actually feed into their ur-narrative. That is: evil forces, including big tech (like YouTube and Facebook which have been removing content), big media and big government are intent on silencing them.
This shutting down, or censorship as they call it, further fuses their experiences with figures in the alt-right (including Alex Jones and Steve Bannon), veterans of no-platforming and first amendment wars. These trauma bonds, which strengthen and unite disparate movements, is a maturation of the trend of Conspirituality, a term coined by Charlotte Ward in 2011 in an article published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion.
She noted the overlap between wellness and new age groups and the alt-right as being a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a paradigm shift in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian new world order is to act in accordance with an awakened new paradigm worldview.
Spending time in this Conspiritual world, its easy to see the ecosystem. The same arguments or phrases start appearing, whether you are listening to a podcaster broadcasting from his basement in Byron Bay, or reading the Medium post of a philosopher and yoga teacher based in upstate New York.
Down the rabbit hole, listening to dozens of wellness podcasts and YouTube broadcasts, the same themes keep arising: fear as a means of social control, fear as a hormone response that weakens the immune system, how social distancing and intensified hygiene practices ruin the bodys natural immune response, the unhealthy body (the body with pre-existing conditions) being a body that is more reliant on and easily controlled by the state and Big Pharma.
Deeply embedded and perhaps central in the connection between the wellness industry and conspiracy is the notion of sovereignty over our bodies. For believers, the sovereign body is the body in a pure state, not reliant on chemicals to heal, and trusted to fire up its own immune response when confronted with a virus even a novel one like Covid-19. Believers arent dissuaded by the facts: all the pure bodies that died because there wasnt a smallpox or polio or chickenpox vaccine.
For many in the wellness industry, a pure body is their lifes work. Dont underestimate their fight.
Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist and the author of Wellmania (Black Inc)
This article was amended on 8 June 2020 to clarify that acupuncturists, yoga studios and alternative medicine practitioners were only forced to close in some countries.