Although extreme right-wing views are not a common pairing with the wellness community, ‘conspirituality’ is becoming more prevalent. What is the secret to this toxic combination?
The afternoon of July 4, 2020 Melissa Rein Lively released a video. She was a PR executive from Arizona. Her appearance already indicated that a viral video was in the plans. However, her super-groomed blondeness is better suited for a brand beauty tutorial than a clip showing face masks being removed from racks. “Finally, we reach the end of this road. This shit has ended, we don’t want any more!” She screams, clutching her phone camera in one, and throwing face masks in the other. In a video quickly dubbed QAnon Karen, she shouts, “This shit is over, this shit is over, it’s over!” She continues to say so when she is confronted by two Target employees in Scottsdale: “It’s impossible for me to do it because I’m blonde and white with fucking $40,000 Rolex? I don’t have the right not to fuck shit?”
Rein Lively had always considered herself a spiritual person. She noticed that many influencers who had previously been focused on spirituality and wellness were now dominated by what she now believes to be QAnon content. QAnon refers to the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is fighting a deep state cabal of Satanic paedophiles. It was first posted on far-right message boards, but it soon spread to online wellness communities where it gained a large female following who continue to share messages like “Save the Children”. The phrase was originally used by QAnon followers who claimed that Hillary Clinton abused and drank children’s blood. This phrase is used today by yoga teachers and other wellness influencers to protest human trafficking.
Rein Lively continues, “Much of the material I read was critical of the pharmaceutical industry and western medical philosophy.” She enjoyed the books at first. She enjoyed learning. She loved the sense of community. She loved the idea of patriots working quietly to save the world. She felt her self-evaluation changing as she read about genocide imminent under the pretext of a medical crisis.
In 2011, Charlotte Ward and David Voas coined the term “conspirituality” in a paper published in the Journal of Contemporary Religion. Ward described it as “a rapidly expanding web movement that expresses an ideology fuelled both by political disillusionment, and the popularity of other worldviews.” It is a sticky intersection between two worlds, the world of juice cleanses and yoga, and the online world of New Age thinking and theories about secret groups that are subversively controlling the universe. You might see a vegan influencer urging followers to drink water instead of getting vaccinated. Or a meditation instructor warning her students about the dangers associated with 5G. Or read an Instagram comment explaining how vaccines hide tracking devices. You might find the word “scamdemic” strewn across a pair of yoga trousers (88% polyester, PS40; also available in “Defund the Media”, “World Hellth Organisation”, and “Masked Sheeple”, in millennial rose).
Although the juxtaposition of magazine-friendly, left-wing wellness and far-right conspiracy theories may seem surprising at first, it is clear that there are many similarities between cultures and ways of thinking. These include the questioning authority, alternative medicine, distrust of institutions, and the similarity in culture. The pandemic is accelerating the process of the former becoming a main entry point to the latter. You can find this entry point everywhere, from a community garden to the beauty section at a large Tesco. A successful influencer has the ability to convince their followers to trust them. They do this by sharing their lives, homes, and concerns. The influencers they trust are more trusted than their doctor, as evidenced by their purchases and their choices.
The wellness industry today is reportedly worth $4.5trn, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand worth $250m alone. Paltrow created a list of products that her “functional medicine practitioner” recommended to ease long Covid. It included an $8,600 necklace for “hiking in” and a $4,500 bracelet. This market is growing and draws from ancient traditions to provide solutions for people who feel ignored or uncared-for by modern medical practices. You can use it to make tea, put on the skin, light the candle in the evening, or wear it around your wrist. It can be shaped like a quest. People who followed certain wellness channels closely noticed a change in tone as the pandemic swept across the globe.
Melissa Rein Lively spotted a meme one night. It was an image of Polish Jews being placed on a train in 1939. The image was edited so that they were wearing masks. The caption read: “First, they put you into the masks, then, they put you inside the box cars.” This was the reaction of Melissa Rein Lively, a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. She said, “It’s the most disturbing image that I’ve ever seen.” All that I was learning, and all that I’ve ever been afraid of were connected in a way which convinced me that at most some semblance or truth to what I was reading. It was clear that the narrative was carefully constructed and was intended to control society. “I was open to expanding my thinking and considering a completely different theory, especially in a time of unprecedented chaos. What if there was nothing? It would be shocking, she said, but also horrifying and “oddly comforting.” It was something I felt that I knew was true and it was also known by others. It was infuriating to see the truth, and I felt compelled help others “. She then went to Target and began shouting.
Research done during the pandemic suggested a link between Covid uncertainty, anxiety, depression and an increase in conspiracy theories. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate reported that anti-vaxxers’ most popular social media accounts increased their followers by over 7.8 million in 2020. To spread their message, they used the fear around Covid vaccines and the rapid approval process, politics surrounding them, and the systemic racism that caused communities of color to lose trust in the medical establishment to spread their message. We live in strange and untested times. Influencers and algorithms on Facebook draw vulnerable people underground through tunnels of internet.
There are silver linings. Although he has been studying the subject for decades, he has never seen it as serious as it is now. This is being called an “infodemic” by the World Health Organisation. He says that the current situation has been fueled by “the toleration of wellness pseudoscience.” It is important to discredit it before it becomes an ideological spin.
There is a strong correlation between the acceptance of “wellness woo” and being vulnerable to misinformation. As conspiracy theories and misinformation become more about ideology, it becomes easier for both wellness bunk as well as conspiracy theories to be sold as being ‘on-brand’. I hope the pandemic will leave a legacy of a better understanding of the dangers of tolerating pseudoscience. We are seeing more people get involved in fighting misinformation.
Like Abbie Richards, a chirpy Lena Dunham-like whose videos on disinformation went viral on TikTok. Her “conspiracy pyramid” has made her famous. It allows viewers to be led away from reality through events that actually happened (like John Lennon’s FBI spying), to the “antisemitic point where there is no return”. She is amazing. She explains in the “Monological thinking” section how everything is linked to a rejection or authority. “If you don’t believe in climate changes, it means you don’t trust scientists.” These ideologies can provide a sense community and someone to blame for discontented people, she says.
Where Richards simplifies big ideas, offering them sugar-coated with a glass of Coke, the Conspirituality podcast, presented by a journalist, a cult researcher and a philosophical sceptic, goes deep, unravelling the “stories, cognitive dissonances and cultic dynamics” in the yoga, wellness and new spirituality worlds every week over a soft-spoken hour. It’s dense and fascinating and covers topics that are both Instagramable and apocalyptic in just two breaths. Some thoughts are always with me. “If you keep getting more enlightened, is it ever truly possible to be truly enlightened?” You can’t integrate holistic practices into capitalist societies. More is always required.” “I am aware that podcasts encourage me to listen to the topics with an intimate empathy. The words spoken and the listening encourage the listener to reflect on their vulnerability to misinformation.”
It is quite disturbing to watch Melissa Rein Lively’s videos. One video she calls police Nazis and another, she repeatedly uses the N-word. She says that she began to experience a rapid mental spiral in the summer of 2020. “I experienced a severe mental breakdown on July 4th at Target.” This is common among conspiracy theorists. In February, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism reported that over two-thirds of the 31 QAnon followers who’d been charged around the January insurrection in Washington, DC experienced severe mental health conditions. After learning that their child had been abused, many of the women who were sampled joined QAnon.
Rein Lively was admitted for a period of 10 days. Her husband filed for divorce. “I was harassed and shamed online because the internet demanded that I be ‘cancelled’. “I was on the brink of suicide.” She worked in hospital with therapists to resolve unresolved traumas, including her mother’s suicide. “All of these life experiences were brought back by the chaos and instability of the pandemic. They forced me to re-experience them, and eventually I sought help.”
She is now reunited with her husband. Her Instagram has a rainbow of bikini photos and videos about mental wellness. Is she now more spiritual about wellness? “I do. It is easy to be drawn into this world. It is easy to forget that spirituality and wellness are an industry. There are a lot of useful lessons,” she says, but, “I think it’s best to take them with a grain of salt.” Caulfield sees Rein Lively as “a good example of how we need voices within the communities”. He believes that people who are able to understand the experiences and values of those who embrace wellness and conspiracies will be more successful.