Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s one of the more disturbing results of the Covid pandemic and it’s real. Too many western democracies have been in bad enough shape before the pandemic and the need to roll back the power of global corporations has been pressing enough but Covid has catalyzed a new threat: a new level of anti-government and anti-establishment conspiracy thinking that can only weaken democratic institutions as well as undermine confidence in sound scientific processes that are aimed at general health and well-being.

A survey report commissioned by the New South Wales government has been released by Macquarie University, Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the COVID-19 Pandemic, to help us understand and counter the rise of this growing extremist outlook. The major threat that it singles out is the ability of far-right extremists to mainstream their narrative with the broader community and so increase their audience scope and potential support for anti-social actions.

In this post I single out just one item in one of the sources the report cites:

  • Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2021/oct/26/why-people-believe-covid-conspiracy-theories-could-folklore-hold-the-answer. [Check the waybackmachine archive.org link if the above does not work]
Prof. Tim Tangherlini

Researchers have mapped the web of connections underpinning coronavirus conspiracy theories, opening a new way of understanding and challenging them. . . . .

Using Danish witchcraft folklore as a model, the researchers from UCLA and Berkeley analysed thousands of social media posts with an artificial intelligence tool and extracted the key people, things and relationships. . . . 

Gates is a persistent figure in the anti-vaccine stories. “He’s a great villain,” says the folklorist Prof Timothy Tangherlini who collaborated with Roychowdhury on the research. It’s Gates’ world-spanning influence in tech and then health that lodges him at the heart of a lot of conspiracies. . . . 

Folklore isn’t just a model for the AI. Tangherlini, whose specialism is Danish folklore, is interested in how conspiratorial witchcraft folklore took hold in the 16th and 17th centuries and what lessons it has for today.

Whereas in the past, witches were accused of using herbs to create potions that caused miscarriages, today we see stories that Gates is using coronavirus vaccinations to sterilise people. A version of this story that omits Gates but claims the vaccines have caused men’s testicles to swell, making them infertile, was repeated by the American rapper Nicki Minaj.

(bolded highlighting is mine in all quotations)

I’m sure that not all anti-vaxxers are interested in Bill Gates, especially in Australia. But the conspiratorial responses concerning elites taking over our governments and threatening our freedoms are the same. A “covid-sceptic” might hear a story about Bill Gates but adjust it to what fits his or her version of the conspiracy. To quote from Tangherlini in the article once more:

In folklore, we have this law of self-correction. So if something doesn’t quite fit, you go back to the way you heard it from 15 other people. I might be saying Jeff Bezos. But if three other people are saying Bill Gates, it’s going to be Bill Gates.

From The Copenhagen Post

The Guardian article’s conclusion is worth quoting, too:

Why do people believe things that seem so wrong?

Conspiracy theories often crop up after catastrophic or unusual events and they thrive in environments where there is a lack of trusted information, says Tangherlini.

In 16th and 17th century Denmark, catastrophic events from floods to poisonous algae mixed with the massive change brought by industrialisation. For those isolated on small farms, access to trusted, consistent information was scarce and stories about witches start to take hold.

Today it’s clear that coronavirus has been a catastrophic event that has impacted everyone’s lives. On the face of it, a lack of information is not a problem in wealthy countries. However, the overload of information online can produce the same effect that Danish farmers faced several centuries ago – a lack of trusted information.

This is where conspiratorial storytelling comes in and these stories start to get created. Then, as now, stories are a powerful way of talking about what we fear.

In my other posts about propaganda I have attempted to underscore the point that a glut of information can have the same effect as too little information. Most of us don’t have the time to take in all the information available, let alone analyse or check it all. It can be too easy to not bother even trying to sift wheat from chaff and fall back on simplistic narratives that offer easy to understand answers.

To quote one section from the report with which I opened this post, pp 38-39:

Conspiracy theories provide simplistic answers to complex problems such as the current global health crisis, and present experts and traditional systems of authority and government as malevolent and untrustworthy. Belief in a conspiracy theory is not a reliable indicator of an acceptance of far right extremism, but conspiratorial thinking is prevalent within far right extremist (and many other extremist) movements, and may provide a vulnerability for pathways into these.

While conspiratorial thinking is detrimental and corrosive to liberal democracy, in sum there are three qualities of conspiratorial thinking that make it particularly concerning for social cohesion:

First, conspiracy theories concerning COVID-19 present a global narrative that can be linked to a host of diverse local issues and grievances. This allows far right extremists to exploit local tensions for their broader political agenda by connecting their narratives with world affairs.

Second, conspiracy theories form an alternative reality. This alternative reality serves as a framework under which multiple fringe movements, ideologies, and concerns can be mobilised. This allows far right extremists to mobilise among new social groups not traditionally receptive to their narratives or aims.

Third, by presenting the crisis as caused or exacerbated by the actions of a sinister and malevolent out-group, conspiracy theories justify an implicit solution in neutering or removing the out-group. This can present pathways towards anti-establishment civic dissent and violence.

A positive response to this growing threat to our societies that the report advises is to respect and engage productively with all those with concerns about covid, medical and vaccine advice, and government policies and to be careful not to label them with the far-right extremists who espouse the same views. To fail to do so risks driving them towards those extremists.


Leach, Anna, and Miles Probyn. “Why People Believe Covid Conspiracy Theories: Could Folklore Hold the Answer?” The Guardian, October 26, 2021

Waldek, Lise, Droogan, Julian, and Ballsun-Stanton, Brian. “Online Far Right Extremist and Conspiratorial Narratives During the Covid-19 Pandemic.” Government report for Department of Communities and Justice, NSW. Sydney, NSW: Macquarie University, March 22, 2022. https://doi.org/10.5281/ZENODO.5732611.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Modern-Day Witchcraft Conspiracy Fears”

  1. The idea that the man who brought us the unreliable buggy mess that is Windows (and Azure) could be capable of a world-wide conspiracy of this level is so utterly ludicrous that it must have started as a joke.

    In reality “Gates” is just a placeholder for “rich” and is the flip-side of the right-wing fantasy that wealth denotes capability or value rather than luck. And that fantasy is a sub-class of the very ancient narrative spread by those in power that they are in power because has decreed that they should be, and remain, in power. The Bible, especially Deuteronomy I & II are full of the twists and turns of logic needed to sustain this notion when things go bad for them.

    Meanwhile, we’re fed an almost equally ludicrous notion that of all the towns and cities in China, the virus outbreak just happened to occur in the one where the US were funding research into making more dangerous forms of…Covid! Which fuels the fires for nutcase conspiracy theories.

    1. By “Deuteronomy I & II” I meant Deuteronomy 1st and 2nd edition, as per Cross’s theory of how the final version of the book ended up with the coda covering the events of 587BC. In my head Deuteronomy is always two books with two different authors.

  2. Neil, I agree with you that conspiracy theories are dangerous and often capture the fancy of the masses.
    I immediately reject articles that claim right-wing or left-wing conspiracies. These are political, not scientific articles. I have never read an article claiming anything about Bill Gates, although I’m sure some people blame him for anything that they dislike in the world.
    My downgraded and hostile opinion towards government health agencies and what I regard as criminal activity in regards to the pandemic comes from reading scientific articles like this recent one published Jan. 24 in the British Medical Journal – https://www.bmj.com/content/376/bmj.o102

    Here are some excerpts:

    In the pages of The BMJ a decade ago, in the middle of a different pandemic, it came to light that governments around the world had spent billions stockpiling antivirals for influenza that had not been shown to reduce the risk of complications, hospital admissions, or death. The majority of trials that underpinned regulatory approval and government stockpiling of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) were sponsored by the manufacturer; most were unpublished, those that were published were ghostwritten by writers paid by the manufacturer, the people listed as principal authors lacked access to the raw data, and academics who requested access to the data for independent analysis were denied…
    The Tamiflu saga heralded a decade of unprecedented attention to the importance of sharing clinical trial data.56 Public battles for drug company data,78 transparency campaigns with thousands of signatures,910 strengthened journal data sharing requirements,1112 explicit commitments from companies to share data,13 new data access website portals,8 and landmark transparency policies from medicines regulators1415 all promised a new era in data transparency.

    Progress was made, but clearly not enough. The errors of the last pandemic are being repeated. Memories are short. Today, despite the global rollout of covid-19 vaccines and treatments, the anonymised participant level data underlying the trials for these new products remain inaccessible to doctors, researchers, and the public—and are likely to remain that way for years to come.16 This is morally indefensible for all trials, but especially for those involving major public health interventions.

    Unacceptable delay

    Pfizer’s pivotal covid vaccine trial was funded by the company and designed, run, analysed, and authored by Pfizer employees. The company and the contract research organisations that carried out the trial hold all the data.17 And Pfizer has indicated that it will not begin entertaining requests for trial data until May 2025, 24 months after the primary study completion date, which is listed on ClinicalTrials.gov as 15 May 2023 (NCT04368728).

    The lack of access to data is consistent across vaccine manufacturers.16 Moderna says data “may be available … with publication of the final study results in 2022.”18 Datasets will be available “upon request and subject to review once the trial is complete,” which has an estimated primary completion date of 27 October 2022 (NCT04470427).
    As of 31 December 2021, AstraZeneca may be ready to entertain requests for data from several of its large phase III trials.19 But actually obtaining data could be slow going. As its website explains, “timelines vary per request and can take up to a year upon full submission of the request.”20

    Underlying data for covid-19 therapeutics are similarly hard to find. Published reports of Regeneron’s phase III trial of its monoclonal antibody therapy REGEN-COV flatly state that participant level data will not be made available to others.21 Should the drug be approved (and not just emergency authorised), sharing “will be considered.” For remdesivir, the US National Institutes of Health, which funded the trial, created a new portal to share data (https://accessclinicaldata.niaid.nih.gov/), but the dataset on offer is limited. An accompanying document explains: “The longitudinal data set only contains a small subset of the protocol and statistical analysis plan objectives.”…

    Journal editors, systematic reviewers, and the writers of clinical practice guideline generally obtain little beyond a journal publication, but regulatory agencies receive far more granular data as part of the regulatory review process. In the words of the European Medicine Agency’s former executive director and senior medical officer, “relying solely on the publications of clinical trials in scientific journals as the basis of healthcare decisions is not a good idea … Drug regulators have been aware of this limitation for a long time and routinely obtain and assess the full documentation (rather than just publications).”22

    Among regulators, the US Food and Drug Administration is believed to receive the most raw data but does not proactively release them. After a freedom of information request to the agency for Pfizer’s vaccine data, the FDA offered to release 500 pages a month, a process that would take decades to complete, arguing in court that publicly releasing data was slow owing to the need to first redact sensitive information.23 This month, however, a judge rejected the FDA’s offer and ordered the data be released at a rate of 55 000 pages a month. The data are to be made available on the requesting organisation’s website (https://phmpt.org/)…

    It seems to me quite probable that the health organizations of most countries and governments have failed to stop the covid pandemic and under the name of science have pushed fake and very unscientific solutions that have injured billions and killed millions.

    1. Thanks for the link to the article, Ray. I have read the full article (I did not read the excerpts you provided in the comment but would have read them in the context of the full article). I do not see how that article leads you to your concluding paragraph:

      It seems to me quite probable that the health organizations of most countries and governments have failed to stop the covid pandemic and under the name of science have pushed fake and very unscientific solutions that have injured billions and killed millions.

      What do you mean by “failed to stop the covid pandemic” and how does your meaning relate to information in the article?

      What in the article lead you to conclude that it is “quite probable” that “fake and very unscientific solutions that have injured billions and killed millions” ?

      What evidence do you have for “fake… solutions” killing “millions” and injuring billions?

  3. Tuskegee airmen, MK Ultra, J.Edgar Hoover, CIA coups, Viet Nam, WMD in Iraq, black torture sites, …

    Unfortunately there’s good reason not to trust the government any more, and that’s just in the US.

    Combine that with the culture wars, and it’s no surprise that conspiracy theories are unstoppable.

    1. Thanks for your response, Andrew. I, too, acknowledge the misinformation that the U.S. government and its allies have spread in relation to past wars and crackdowns on civil rights leaders. We have the data to identify the sources of that misinformation and it is no secret who was responsible and what their agendas have been.

      But how does that information relate to government policies with respect to covid-19?

      1. I’m not trying to justify the covid conspiracy theories, just to account for them. Nowadays the default response is no longer to trust the government. In fact the CDC did lie to us early on by saying that masks were useless.

        Combine that with political hyper-partisanship and every major issue turns into a conspiracy theory. No doubt Hunter Biden’s laptop will take off now that there’s a major issue to plug it into, the Ukraine war.

        Whatever happens in the 2022 or 2024 elections, there will be conspiracy theories to provide narration. That’s just the world we live in now.

        1. A lot of people with ties to industries have been working very hard to bring about this dis-trust. That’s not a “conspiracy theory” (though kinds of conspiracies are involved) but a historically traceable fact of modern propaganda wars. I’d like to post some details.

          (When you say ‘lie’, I think of a deliberate, knowing statement of falsehoods intended to deceive.” I don’t know the details but I would suspect CDC was not “lying”.)

          1. No, I think the CDC was “lying”. They didn’t want civilians buying up N95 masks, so they said they wouldn’t help, even though the data at that time was at worst inclusive.

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