Date of Award
Master of Arts in Social Sciences
First Reader/Committee Chair
2020 was a good year for conspiracy theory. From COVID denialism to QAnon, the usual cast of conspiracy influencers was joined by mommy bloggers, yoga teachers, and social media opportunists to spread disinformation and sow doubt in the American psyche across the vast network of the internet. While the news media and popular entertainment often portrays the conspiracy theorist as a paranoid quack, the reality is far more conventional. We are all conspiracy theorists, in one way or another. Each of us arrive at a conspiracy theory with unique worldviews which include our political and spiritual belief systems. We are influenced, and not always in the ways we imagine, by every stimulus around us. These influences range from our upbringing, the media we consume, the education we’ve had, the people we follow on social media, the way we worship, and how we take care of our health. Perhaps most influential of all are the systemic realities we exist within, our country of birth, global capitalism, race, class, gender identity, and so much more. Not to mention that the whole of human history is littered with very real conspiracy. Individuals lie, proximity to power can corrode ethical responsibility, the media reports on novelty, and our institutional systems are rife with racial and economic injustice. People aren’t crazy to be suspicious or believe in conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theorist can better be understood as occupying a wide spectrum. On the far end of the spectrum one finds grand conspiracy narratives, or all-encompassing alternate explanations for observable reality. Many conspiracy theories are folded into alternate histories and explanation for current events in which society is ruled by a small cohort of “they,” powerful conspirators bent on global domination. The grand conspiracy narrative, which is often conveyed as a battle between dark and light, leaves no common ground for productive, nuanced discourse. Grand conspiracists craft a new impenetrable black and white, good and bad binary. Adopters of the grand conspiracy narrative get to be forever and always firmly on the side of right, light, and love, while the rest of us are brainwashed by delusion fed to us by “the mainstream media,” science, and academia. These grand conspiracy narratives became popular during the COVID-19 global pandemic with many groups including supporters of Donald Trump as well as those within spiritual wellness communities.
My central curiosity became “why wellness?” What about mainstream wellness culture could lead many within that space to adopt and widely disseminate grand conspiracy narratives during the COVID-19 global pandemic? It is my hypothesis that the emphasis on individual responsibility to one’s health and spiritual wellbeing embedded in the neoliberal wellness project creates the conditions for conspiracist ideation within the wellness space. Wellness entrepreneurs are encouraged to “heal the self,” “speak their truth,” and manifest their reality. All of these erode collective bonds including shared reality and personal responsibility to systemic struggles. Conspiracy wellness influencers occupy the extreme both of wellness and conspiracist ideation. A grand conspiracy narrative serves as reinforcement to the health and spiritual orthodoxy created by a wellness entrepreneur and social media influencer. The conspiracy theories expressed on their platform become a marketing tool, attracting those suspicious of institutions in an age of decaying trust in establishment authority. In another ironic twist, when the conspiracy influencer is criticized for their wellness protocols or extreme politics, the conspiracy theories themselves act as a shield from wrongdoing and ultimately allow the influencer to position themselves as the marginalized one for simply “speaking their truth,” regardless of their position within society. The branded messaging of self-responsibility for personal health and spiritual freedom that the grand conspiracy narrative buttresses perpetuate the neoliberal social project in real time.
McLaughlin, Melissa Ann, "GREAT AWAKENING 2020: THE NEOLIBERAL WELLNESS JOURNEY DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE" (2021). Electronic Theses, Projects, and Dissertations. 1277.