It was the afternoon of 4 July 2020, and Melissa Rein Lively’s video was about to go viral. A PR executive in Arizona, she already had the appearance of a person for whom a viral video was part of the plan, but with the super-groomed blondeness better suited to a branded beauty tutorial than a clip of face masks being torn from their racks. “Finally we meet the end of the road. This shit is over, we don’t want any of this any more!” she screams, holding the phone camera in one hand and tossing face masks with the other, in a video that swiftly became known as QAnon Karen. When two employees at the Scottsdale branch of Target confront her, she continues, “Why? I can’t do it cause I’m a blonde white woman? Wearing a fucking $40,000 Rolex? I don’t have the right to fuck shit up?”
Rein Lively had always thought of herself as a spiritual person. Her interests were grounded in “wellness, natural health, organic food”, she lists for me today from her home in Arizona, “yoga, ayurvedic healing, meditation, etc.” When the pandemic hit she started spending more time online, on wellness sites that offered affirmations, recipes and, on health, the repeated message to “Do your research.” She’d click on a video of foods that boost immunity and she’d see a clip about the dangers of vaccines. “A significant number of influencers previously focused on wellness and spirituality,” she noticed, “seemed to become dominated with what we now understand to be QAnon content.” QAnon is the conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is fighting a deep-state cabal of Satanic paedophiles. It originated on far-right message boards before entering online wellness communities, where it found a largely female following, who continue to share phrases like “Save the Children”. The phrase was first used by QAnon believers spreading the false claim that Hillary Clinton abused children and drank their blood. Today that phrase is seen on social media posts by yoga teachers and wellness influencers speaking out against human trafficking.
“Much of what I read took a hard stance against the pharmaceutical industry and western medical philosophy, and was particularly critical of individuals like Bill Gates, who seemed to have an incredible amount of influence and involvement in public health policy,” continues Rein Lively. At first, she enjoyed what she was reading. She liked learning. She liked the community. She liked the idea that there were patriots in the government who were working quietly to help save the world. But as she clicked on and read about imminent genocide under the guise of a health crisis, she felt herself changing.
In 2011, sociologists Charlotte Ward and David Voas coined the term “conspirituality”. Ward defined it as “a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews”. It describes the sticky intersection of two worlds: the world of yoga and juice cleanses with that of New Age thinking and online theories about secret groups, covertly controlling the universe. It’s a place where you might typically see a vegan influencer imploring their followers to stick to a water fast rather than getting vaccinated, or a meditation instructor reminding her clients of the dangers of 5G, or read an Instagram comment explaining that vaccines are hiding tracking devices. It’s a place where the word “scamdemic” might comfortably run up the side of a pair of yoga pants (88% polyester, £40, also available in “Defund the Media” print, “World Hellth Organisation” and “Masked Sheeple”, in millennial pink).
While the overlap of left-wing, magazine-friendly wellness and far-right conspiracy theories might initially sound surprising, the similarities in cultures, in ways of thinking – the questioning of authority, of alternative medicines, the distrust of institutions– are clear. But something is happening, accelerated by the pandemic – the former is becoming a mainstream entry point into the latter. An entry point that can be found everywhere from a community garden to the beauty aisle at a big Tesco. Part of what makes a successful influencer is the ability to compel their followers to trust them, and they do that by sharing their lives, their homes, their diets, their concerns. It’s become clear, both by the products they buy and the choices they make, that many people trust their influencers more than their own doctor.
The wellness industry today is reportedly worth $4.5trn, with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand worth $250m alone; in May, on the Goop site Paltrow curated a list of products recommended by her “functional medicine practitioner” to help ease long Covid, including an $8,600 necklace, for “hiking in”. This is a growth market, an industry that draws on ancient traditions to offer solutions to people who feel unlistened to and uncared for by modern medical practices. It can be stirred into tea, or pressed into the skin, or lit in the evening, or worn round the wrist. It is shaped as a quest. And as the pandemic chewed its way across the world, those following certain wellness channels closely noticed a shift in tone.
One night, Melissa Rein Lively saw a meme: an image of Polish Jews being put on a train in 1939, edited so they were wearing face masks. The caption said: “First they put you in the masks, then they put you in the box cars.” The granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, she says, “It was the most disturbing image I think I have ever seen. Everything I was learning and everything I have ever been afraid of connected in a way that convinced me that at least some semblance of what I was reading was true.” She was becoming convinced that nothing was really what it seemed; that there was a carefully constructed narrative being told, which was designed to control society. “I was willing to expand my thinking and consider a completely alternative theory, especially during a time of unprecedented chaos. What if nothing was what it seemed?” It was shocking, she says, and horrifying, and also, “Oddly comforting. What I had felt I knew was true, and others knew the same thing. The ‘truth’ as I saw it, was infuriating and I felt compelled to help others ‘awaken’ .” Which is when she went to Target and started shouting.
Research conducted during the pandemic suggests a link between Covid-related uncertainty, anxiety and depression and an increased likelihood of believing conspiracy theories. A report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate showed the most-followed social media accounts held by anti-vaxxers increased their followers by more than 7.8m in 2020. They have used the anxiety around Covid vaccines, the speed with which they were authorised, the politics that surrounded them and the systemic racism that led to communities of colour losing trust in the medical establishment, to spread their message. We are living in odd and untested times, when influencers and Facebook algorithms draw vulnerable people underground through the tunnels of the internet.
There are, however, silver linings. One benefit of the rise of conspiracy theories is the rise of conspiracy-theory explainers. Dr Timothy Caulfield works tirelessly, occasionally with a note of weariness, to explain and debunk misinformation. He’s studied the subject for decades, but has never seen it taken as seriously as it is right now; the World Health Organisation is calling this an “infodemic”. “The toleration of wellness pseudoscience has helped to fuel the current situation,” he says. The key to changing minds is to debunk it before it takes on an ideological spin.
“There is a strong correlation between the embrace of ‘wellness woo’ and being susceptible to misinformation. And as conspiracy theories and misinformation become increasingly about ideology, it becomes easier to sell both wellness bunk and conspiracy theories as being ‘on brand.’ In other words, if you are part of our community, this is the cluster of beliefs you must embrace – Big Science is evil, supplements help, you can boost your immune system, vaccines don’t work…” He could go on. “I truly hope that one of the legacies of the pandemic is a greater understanding of the harm that tolerating pseudoscience can do. The good news is that we are seeing more and more individuals get involved in the fight against misinformation.”
Like Abbie Richards, a chirpy Lena-Dunham lookalike whose disinformation videos have gone viral on TikTok. She has become famous for her “conspiracy theory pyramid”, which she uses to lead viewers away from reality, through things that really happened (like the FBI spying on John Lennon), to “the antisemitic point of no return”. She is fabulous. In the “Monological thinking” section, she explains how everything is connected to a rejection of authority. “If you don’t believe in climate change, you’re saying you don’t trust the scientists. If someone is feeling discontented, these ideologies provide them with a sense of community, and someone to blame,” 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 is dense and fascinating, and moves in and out of topics alternately Instagramable and apocalyptic within two breaths. Certain thoughts stay with me. “If you keep getting enlightened, are you ever really enlightened? When you attempt to integrate a holistic practice into a capitalist society, more is always demanded.” And, “Conspirituality is an ideology, but it’s also a financial racket and it’s also a way of being with other people.” As I listen, I become aware of how the intimate nature of a podcast encourages me to think about the subjects with a particular empathy – aside from the words spoken, the speaking itself encourages the listener to consider their own vulnerability to misinformation.
Watching Melissa Rein Lively’s videos is disturbing. In one she calls police Nazis, in another she uses the N-word repeatedly. That summer, she says now, she’d begun, “to experience a rapid mental health spiral. On 4 July, I experienced a mental break that peaked at a Target store.” Mental illness is not uncommon in 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. Many of the women sampled became involved in QAnon after learning their child had been abused.
Rein Lively was hospitalised for 10 days. Her husband filed for divorce. “I was shamed and harassed online as the internet called for me to be ‘cancelled’. I was close to the edge of suicide.” In hospital she worked with therapists unpicking unresolved trauma, including the death by suicide of her mother. “The instability and chaos of the pandemic brought back all of those life experiences. I was forced to re-experience them and ultimately seek help.”
Today, she is reunited with her husband, her Instagram a rainbow of bikini shots and videos about mental health. Does she feel differently about wellness and spirituality now? “I do. I think it is very easy to get drawn into that world. People fail to realise that wellness and spirituality is ultimately 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. People who understand the values and experiences of people who have embraced wellness and conspiracies.” It’s never been more important, he believes, for wellness influencers to use their influence well.