“Hillary Clinton is on trial for cutting off a little girls [sic] face and wearing it as a mask. Then she cut the little girl [sic] arm off and killed her. Oh yeah and they got her for human trafficking too, Obama as well! Bill Gates. Oprah too!”
If you’d told nine-year-old me back in 2003 that Mutya Buena of Sugababes was going to spend the summer of 2020 sharing conspiracy theories about US senator Hillary Clinton slicing children’s faces off with help from Obama, Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey, I probably would have choked on my Um Bongo (before asking, naturally, “Who’s Obama?”). But then not much of the first half of 2020 would have sounded very believable to a child living in the halcyon, post-history days of Blair-era Britain that now seem so long ago.
Coronavirus lockdown has messed with practically every aspect of our lives and celebrities – even those whose time in the public eye is largely over – are no exception. Like us, they’re discombobulated. And, like us, they seem to be looking for answers to the uncertainty wherever they can, leading to a worrying recent spike in high-profile figures happy to trot out conspiracy theories on social media.
In early April, boxer Amir Khan aired the opinion on Instagram Live that the idea the coronavirus came from China was “a lie” and that the virus was “a man-made thing. It’s been put there for a reason – while they test 5G. It might be for population control – get rid of a lot of us, especially when they say that it harms old people.” Khan’s videos even drew condemnation from Michael Gove, who redefined the old pot-and-kettle metaphor by calling them “dangerous nonsense”. The same week, media personality Amanda Holden retweeted a petition linking the coronavirus and the 5G network, before swiftly deleting it and insisting she had shared the link “accidentally”.
Then came Robbie Williams. In late June, Williams gave a video interview to a former journalist named Anna Brees in which he spoke about, among other things, his suspicion there were Satanic paedophiles at work in the music industry and his support for an investigation into the American “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that contends prominent Democratic Party officials ran a paedophile ring out of a Washington, DC pizzeria.
It was an astounding turn from Williams, who remains one of the most likeable and charismatic musicians at work in the UK today. Brees called the interview “brave and insightful” and encouraged Williams as he explored – if slightly uncertainly – the idea that British police have been covering up decades of child murder. In the Youtube description attached to the video, Brees claims, “Like many other people on the internet, Robbie is of the opinion that mainstream-media journalists are attempting to dismiss such stories as ‘debunked conspiracy theories’ without doing the required research to adequately discredit such stories. As such, he feels, they are preventing the public from finding out the real and essential truth.” And then, finally, we were treated to Mutya Buena’s accusations, so extreme they’d make David Icke blush.
In June, Robbie Williams spoke about his suspicion that there were Satanic paedophiles at work in the music industry
It goes without saying that it is irresponsible for individuals such as Khan, Buena and Williams to use their platforms to spread what is essentially fake news. Conspiracy theorists don’t attempt to find provable truth – rather, the goal is simply to muddy the waters so much that people begin to doubt the legitimacy of basic social institutions such as the criminal justice system, parliament and, of course, the media. And misinformation such as theirs leads to real, concrete violence: Wired reports that from 20 April to 5 May, “There were 16 arson or sabotage attacks on mobile phone masts. When failed or attempted attacks are added to the tally, that number increases to 74.” Engineers installing the masts have been shouted at, spat on and even stabbed. In the States, a young man travelled to the DC pizzeria in question and fired an automatic rifle in the air, demanding the trafficked children be freed from the basement before realising there was no basement in the building and submitting to police. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 per cent,” he told the New York Times from prison, mistakenly implying it was any per cent at all.
Williams, Buena and Khan may think they have understood things the majority of the population is too “blinkered” to have noticed. There’s a sense of comfort to be had from assigning agency to an essentially chaotic world. And, in a sense, they are on the right track, even if their conclusions are totally wrong. It’s an uncomfortable fact that there’s a modicum of value in the conspiratorial mindset. You should question things. If Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and the plethora of other examples have taught us anything, some powerful people – much like some not very powerful people – are sexual predators whose actions have been covered up by money and influence. But there is an important difference between holding power to account and mistrusting all institutions of government on principle.
There is an important difference between holding power to account and mistrusting all institutions of government on principle
“Who knows?” said Williams of the Pizzagate conspiracy. “The fact that we don’t know means nothing has been debunked.” This is a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance – in short, saying a theory is true because it has not been disproven to your satisfaction. The problem there is that you can claim literally anything (“Pigs can fly”) and then put the burden of proof on disproving it rather than proving it (“You might never have seen a pig fly, but that doesn’t mean they can’t”). “Yes, there was no basement in the particular pizza place,” said Williams. “That’s not the debunking that I want.” Which raises the question: if literal, physical proof is not good enough, what is the debunking you do want? You want us to check the basement of every restaurant in DC that serves pizza?
Most abuses of power are far too mundane to merit sensationalist tweets. You can be suspicious of our government’s shady links with big business – with those in the American media who have a vested interest in discrediting and dismantling the BBC, for instance – without believing our leaders literally mutilate children. You can question what sort of behaviour powerful men get away with behind closed doors without believing that they would be so heavy-handed as to run a paedophile ring out of the basement of a pizza restaurant. You can (and should) voice suspicion of the fact we have handed over partial construction of our communications network to a nation that runs concentration camps for dissidents, but the technology itself does not enable mind control. A relatively exclusive and often secretive group of men and women does control much of the world’s power and money, sure. And that’s wrong. But they’re not lizards.
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