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The pandemic’s parallel dimension

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. In this edition: How New Age influencers and religious leaders are driving anti-vaccine narratives

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Start ’em young. We’ve written in the past about how conspiracy theories fly on TikTok. Outlandish QAnon tropes like #pizzagate have found fertile ground among Gen-Zers, while the hashtag #glitchtok is full of conspiracy videos, spread by young people who believe we have entered “a parallel dimension” during the pandemic. According to research by psychologists at the University of Northumbria in the U.K., belief in conspiracy theories is heightened at the age of 14 and begins to flourish during adolescence. These young people are going to be voting adults in a few years, so encouraging fact-based critical thinking from an early age could be vital in preventing a more monstrous infodemic than the one we’re currently battling.

An orthodox priest in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, took to social media this week, sermonizing about a bizarre alleged discovery. “Vaccinated people can connect to Bluetooth,” he solemnly told his followers. He also made similar statements to the media, but – oddly – refused to demonstrate his claim for TV cameras. The Church itself, which has huge influence and power within the country, is split over vaccines. Some priests have spread fear over the shots, while others have been injected publicly and staunchly denounced misinformation like the Bluetooth rumor.

Spotlight: Learning to leave the New Age movement 

I’ve recently been interviewing people who stand out as anomalies in the conspiracy world. Individuals who fell down the rabbit hole, stayed there for many years and then — against all odds — clambered out. They’re now in the process of deprogramming themselves, and the experience can be traumatic.

One of the most astonishing stories I heard recently was from a woman named Alexis Danielsen, based in British Columbia, Canada.

“When I was an anti-vaxxer I knew everything. I had all the answers,” she told me. 

Danielsen grew up in Germany and Denmark, and came from a family committed to the Waldorf method of education, founded a century ago by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Her mother taught at the Steiner school she attended. 

Steiner schools are often associated with anti-vaccine campaigners. Rudolph Steiner’s original philosophy embraced unconventional medical ideas and was critical of vaccinations. He suggested that the diphtheria vaccine could be avoided in favor of “bathing treatments,” while the smallpox vaccine had an evil, phantom-like power over the body. While the Steiner organization denies that it is against vaccinations, full vaccination rates in California’s Steiner schools are as low as 20-30%, with one kindergarten at 7%. 

Danielsen blames much of her former anti-vaccine, conspiracist and New Age ideology on being raised in the Steiner system. 

She worked out she has spent at least $33,000 on various New Age treatments, healing services, supplements and courses over her lifetime. After she went through a miscarriage three years ago, she employed 16 different spiritual healers and clairvoyants to try to help her get over the trauma. 

“Everything that I tried was in this bubble of New Age bullshit,” she said. “I was on this weird spiritual scavenger hunt that I thought would purify me and make me worthy.” 

When none of it helped, Danielsen decided to finally put her old beliefs aside. Doing so meant jettisoning everything she once held to be true.

Some of the most painful work has been untangling herself from the idea that she could simply “manifest” her way out of a bad situation. Now, aged 39, she is beginning to re-examine things that she has believed since she was a child. 

“I have to fact-check everything!” she said. “Like, are microwaves actually dangerous? I’m not sure. It feels terrifying and exciting and I feel so much relief.”

Now, Danielsen has put spiritual healing aside and embraced evidence-based science. One of the first things she did was get a Covid-19 shot — the first vaccine she has ever received. 

Waiting in line, she was scared, but not about the injection itself. She had heard stories from other reformed anti-vaxxers about medical professionals shaming them for not already being vaccinated. 

“I need to learn to trust again. I have a lot of trust issues. I’m figuring out what that looks like,” she said.

What we’re reading 

In Germany, similar overlaps between New Age and extremist ideology are emerging. According to a new report by the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, far-right activists and anti-vaxxers have been heavily influencing natural medicine and alternative circles, The report found that right-wing German Telegram users have been grooming new followers in conversations about public health that quickly pivot into anti-vaccination narratives, encouraging people to violently resist coronavirus restrictions. “The topic of public health care has become a gateway and incubator for conspiracy ideologues, right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination campaigners,” the report stated, describing how the followings of German anti-vax Telegram groups have exploded by 471% in the past year.

Ready for our all time favorite pandemic word? Koronarokote. If you have no idea what it is, you are not alone. Journalists from the Finnish National Broadcasting company investigated and exposed how YouTube broke its own guidelines and promises over moderating Covid-19-related content in Finnish. When confronted, the platform admitted that it had allowed disinformation through, simply because it could not figure out what “koronarokote” meant. The answer is “coronavirus vaccine.” 

Conspiracy theories, disinformation and cults tear families apart. Our reporter Mariam Kiparoidze has been speaking to the spouses of people who have been sucked into QAnon, hearing of the grief and fear they have faced while losing a loved one to its shadowy world. The resulting animated film is beautifully told and animated, and well worth a watch. 

Coda’s reporters Mariam Kiparoidze and Erica Hellerstein contributed to this week’s Infodemic. Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline we are following as part of our coverage. These overarching storylines — whether the disinformation campaigns that are feeding the war on truth or the new technologies strengthening the growing authoritarianism, are the crises that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Support journalism that stays on the story. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.

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