Hoax AppealCOVID-19 Has Led Wellness Influencers to Embrace QAnon

Photo credit: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

Nora Salem is Bitch Media’s 2020 Writing Fellow in Global Feminism

Plandemic is a hard video to find. The documentary, uploaded in May 2020, quickly spread to various social-media platforms before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and others took it down, citing the dangerous conspiracy theories it was spreading about COVID-19 and associated vaccinations. To the untrained eye, Plandemic’s exploration of fears about the “Deep State” and anti-vaxxer ideology might seem like a credible effort to unveil truth and empower the masses. Its creator, Mikki Willis, is a filmmaker and cinematographer as well as the founder of Elevate, a company that makes “socially conscious” entertainment. Unlike most other proponents of beliefs that have, over the past few years, become associated with the conspiracy theory known as QAnon, Willis appears to be a liberal, at least socially. (His first brush with fame was a viral video in which he explained why he approved of his young son’s choice to purchase a Barbie.)

The documentary itself, however, focuses on the theories of Judy Mikovits, a scientist who in 2009 authored a now-retracted study published in Science magazine on a possible cause of chronic fatigue syndrome and has since been eschewed by the scientific establishment. In a 60 Minutes–style interview, the two sit across from one another, and Willis asks Mikovits leading questions (like, for example, “If we activate mandatory vaccines globally, I imagine these people stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars?”) and Mikovits peppers her answers with questionable facts on both virology and legislation. At first glance, it was a combination that could appeal to many who called themselves progressives, especially those who prided themselves on digging for truth. By the time major social-media platforms removed the video, it had already been spread by millions and, like other conspiracies, managed to gain a surprising foothold in the ever-expanding world of wellness.

Plandemic makes various spurious claims with and little to no attempt to prove them, and Mikovits offers easily disproved theories—suggesting, for instance, that COVID-19 was created in a lab and that face masks “activate the virus.” But the video’s inaccuracies didn’t keep it from being widely circulated among wellness enthusiasts. Many of those who work in healing modalities, from yoga teachers to practitioners of alternative medicine, began to see friends and colleagues questioning the value of masks—and even the existence of the virus itself. By the end of May, the film’s claims had burrowed so deep into the New Age community that three horrified wellness practitioners started a podcast called Conspirituality to specifically debunk Plandemic and try to find answers for why the conspiracy had become such a draw in their circles. There’s now a term for the overlap: Pastel QAnon.

Julian Walker, a host of Conspirituality and a practitioner of yoga, bodywork, and ecstatic dance, referred to the frightening new trend in his community as “Orwellian double-speak in light-worker drag.” Walker notes that the wellness community’s common belief in manifestation and the law of attraction—the idea that your thoughts create your reality—can encourage both magical thinking and an unwillingness to acknowledge complex realities. Walker writes, “This aspect of our subculture insists that to be spiritually awakened, we see a curated and fanciful illusion as reality, and the more nuanced and bittersweet reality longing for our compassionate attention, as the lie.” This curated illusion has linked several of Walker’s colleagues to QAnon, which holds that the world is run by a wealthy cabal of pedophiles who feed on children’s blood and from whom only President Trump can save us.

QAnon first gained attention in October 2017 on the website 4chan, where a user with the screen name “Q Clearance Patriot” who claimed to be a high-level government employee, began posting “Q Drops”—classified information about Trump’s war on the cabal. Though QAnon has roots in 2016’s Pizzagate debacle, its popularity likely owes much to the way it unites several conspiracy theories—including those surrounding UFOs and the assassination of JFK—under one umbrella. Avid believers seem to spend most of their time deciphering clues in the president’s tweets; in turn, Trump has on more than one occasion seemed to encourage, rather than deny, their beliefs. For his part, Walker argues that such theories are the result of what he calls “freshman skepticism,” where “lack of knowledge” collides with “paranoid speculation, fallacious reasoning, and glib over-generalization.” 

QAnon adherents, anti-vaxxers, and misled wellness enthusiasts (many of whom are women) aren’t necessarily outliers: Like so many of us, they are aware that something is very wrong with the way power is concentrated and wielded in this country. Perhaps they struggle with a disease like fibromyalgia that is common among women and, not incidentally, medically understudied. If they have found, as many fibromyalgia patients do, relief in alternative medicines, it’s not hard to understand why they would be open to less-than-proven healthcare theories. But it’s equally true that binary thinking—hospital doctors: bad; alternative treatments: good—might also keep them from seeing larger factors at play, like the inherent sexism of a medical field neglecting to research diseases and symptoms mostly experienced by women.

Conspiracy and wellness circles share an outsized obsession with self-reliance, even if one faction expresses it through firearms and the other through crystals.

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The baseline sexism in Western medicine that fails to clearly articulate that symptoms of heart attacks in women are very different than those in men and that under-research common diseases like endometriosis makes it easy to see why so many people lose faith in the medical field as a whole. The parasitic nature of the health-insurance industry doesn’t help. From the vantage of 2020, many of our powerful institutions have failed us and trust in institutions are at historic lowsPlandemic appealed to Americans who sensed that something was wrong in the way that power and knowledge were weaponized, but who didn’t know how to make sense of it, or what to do about it. Mikovits is clearly not an expert: Shortly after the research she published in Science was retracted in 2011, she was fired from the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease (WPI), where she served as research director. She was later arrested on charges of possessing property stolen from the institute. (Mikovits claimed that she was held without charges, but even the briefest fact check shows that to be untrue.)

Nonetheless, to Plandemic converts, Mikovits is an anti-authoritarian hero, an anti-vaxxers’ Angela Davis who has been persecuted for speaking truth to power. But though there is this sense among QAnon adherents that there’s a  problem with power in America, they often lack a cohesive understanding of its history and strategies. By failing to engage with the historical forms power has taken in our country’s past (racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, etc.), QAnon has managed to reproduce some of its worst crimes. It’s this missing piece that seems to tie followers to beliefs that don’t make any logical sense. For example, the medical industry is not censoring information on alternative medicine—it’s promoting such treatments in places where it beefs up revenue. Similarly, as we know all too well, lockdowns and masks weren’t popular with many powerful politicians and business leaders; rather, many of them have been happy to sacrifice public health in favor of economic gain.

Walker connects this illogical thinking to the obsessive positivity and individualism of many wellness proponents. “For many New Agers, individual health and well-being, as well as that of the global community, is often framed as only ever really being at risk from one thing: wrong thinking and beliefs…. Here the original sin is a lack of spiritual awareness,” he writes. A significant portion of the rhetoric employed in wellness-branded conspiracy-theory circles revolves around concepts like sovereignty or tyranny. This is likely because the two worlds share an outsized obsession with self-reliance, even if one faction expresses it through firearms and the other through crystals. Perhaps this is why the current moment is causing such a meltdown in both of these cultural spheres. Like the less-wacky elements of the right, QAnon enthusiasts—Pastel and otherwise—refuse to see the lesson that COVID-19 is attempting to teach us: Our health and wellness is a shared good, and none of us can secure justice in an unequal society without it.

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Nora Salem, a writer of color, wearing a yellow shirt and light-blue jeans
by Nora Salem
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Nora Salem is a writer and teacher. A graduate of Virginia Tech’s MFA program, she completed a Fulbright research program in Kuala Lumpur and an Open City Fellowship at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two cats.