Man running away from coronavirus
We're overlooking the role of the 'enemy' in responses to COVID-19 and understanding conspiracies.

The Roman emperor Nero committed suicide in 68 AD. Strangely, many suspected Nero to have faked his death and was hiding—waiting for the perfect time to return and reestablish his power. Other stories claim that Nero had merely fled to the East, while other theories purported that Nero was, in fact, really dead but would be resurrected to reclaim his throne. Christians widely held this latter theory since Nero was well-known for persecuting them. Indeed, such a conspiracy is spelled-out in the Book of Revelation, which details Nero’s averred return in gory detail.

Shifting the focus to today, there are over 5 million coronavirus (COVID-19) cases across the globe. This number will surely swelter over the coming months. Governments in every continent have taken various measures to thwart the pandemic. With the pervasiveness of COVID-19, many articles and videos have speculated how the virus initially spread to humans. Many conspiracy theorists claim that the roll-out of 5G is to blame for the pandemic. Others assume this is a coordinated attack by China to cripple the West.

The video “Plandemic” contains a famous conspiracy theory, which recently went viral. Although it was removed from YouTube and Facebook, it has been viewed millions of times. Judy Mikovits is the star of the video. A disgraced ex-virology researcher, Mikovits argues that COVID-19 has emerged from a wily motivation to sell vaccinations. Replete with obfuscation, many reputable outlets such as FactCheck and Science have exposed its spurious claims.

With so many conspiracy theories abound, there is a natural inclination to unravel the psychology of this strange phenomenon. Why, particularly during the social upheaval, are people so prone to believing in conspiracy theories? A phenomenon that scholars have studied for decades; there are various common traits that experts have identified when understanding conspiratorial thinking. In their recent Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven characteristics of conspiratorial thinkingCook, Van der Linden, Lewandowsky, and Ecker point out seven such distinctive traits:

  1. Contradictory beliefs
  2. Overriding suspicion
  3. Nefarious intent
  4. Conviction something’s wrong
  5. Persecuted victim
  6. Immunity to evidence
  7. Reinterpreting randomness 

While these distinctive traits are undoubtedly veridical, they certainly do not explain why people believe in conspiracy theories. Another psychological manifestation underpinning this has been circulating in the crevasses of scholarly debate: the forging of enemies. 

The ‘Enemy’ in Conspiracy Theories

Jesse Walker, the editor of Reason magazine and writer of famed conspiracy exposé The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theoryidentifies five central kinds of conspiracy theorists: 

  • The “Enemy Outside” refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without.
  • The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from its ordinary citizens.
  • The “Enemy Above” involves influential people manipulating events for their gain.
  • The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
  • The “Benevolent Conspiracies” are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.

As documented, the role of the ‘enemy’ is quite protrusive in conspiratorial thinking. Nevertheless, it is not limited to conspiratorial thinking amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. A bizarre offshoot of the damage inflicted by COVID-19 is that it has brought people together. Ironic, of course, since social distancing has become so universal in the attempt to curtail the spread of the virus.

A bizarre offshoot of the damage inflicted by COVID-19 is that it has brought people together

Steve Rathje opined that COVID-19 is a sort of “common enemy” and “it is often said that common enemies bring us together.” He goes further, speculating reasons why Trump recently framed this issue as a “war with a hidden enemy.”

With Walker and Rathje offering different accounts of what role enemy-forging is playing in our responses to COVID-19 and conspiratorial thinking more broadly, what common mechanisms could be at play? Put differently, why is enemy forging so pervasive? 

The Mechanisms at Play

Famed philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco perspicuously noted in his Inventing the Enemy four psychological mechanisms at play in “enemy rhetoric.” First, having an enemy is important in defining our identity. We require an enemy to fathom who we are and, perhaps just as important, who we are not. Second, having an enemy provides us with an obstacle against which we can measure our system of values. Third, in seeking to overcome such obstacles, we thereby demonstrate our worth to ourselves. Last, understanding who we are and who they are is crucial for both our self-approval and self-esteem. 

COVID-19, being a common enemy to all, stands as an evocation of self-approval and self-esteem across – and thus bridges – our natural social bubbles. Worryingly, the same is true in conspiratorial thinking. We just need to think of the way global elites like Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci are chided as being to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, foreboding when COVID-19 may prey upon us and grieving when our loved ones have been victimised by it stand as rather plain grounds for making an enemy – the Coronavirus. Naturally, it may sound rather malignant to think that people might be psychologically gaining from the coronavirus pandemic. Shouldn’t we all just be falling into two camps: the immiserated and the watchful? The fact of the matter is that conspiratorial thinking and finding a common enemy stand as psychologically profitable. The key difference is this: one form of profit turns us against each other, while the other one brings us together. 

Coronavirus and the Enemy: Moving Forward

The possibility of consolidation gestures toward an important point. Indeed, strategically using what is typically primeval – making enemies – could play a decisive role in mustering the necessary courage and determination to get out of this deadly situation. An “excellent man” is surplus to requirements, as Oscar Wilde rightly noted, for “he has no enemies, and none of his friends like him.”  

What the tabloids have coined ‘Covidiots’ are those who rebuff the advice of the government. Instead of social isolating, they prefer to prolong their modus operandi and are quick to quibble about attempts to stop what they’re doing. Taking a more invidious approach – making an enemy – could be the turning point for them. Indeed, it could well result in them adhering to adequate social distancing protocols. After all, few things are more powerful than devising – and overcoming – a profitable obstacle against which we can measure our system of values. The long-term award for contriving a common enemy will be, we can hope, the emergence of a vaccine. Remaining resolute as a species, we will demonstrate our worth like never before. 

Perhaps it’s time we use what is all-too-human to our advantage. Of course, it’s easy to succumb to conspiratorial thinking. However, if, deep down, we need to forge enemies, we need to be reflective enough to forge insightfully. Let’s mutate our inclination as an audacious ‘fuck-you’ to the Coronavirus itself, showing it how real mutation comes to pass. Let’s remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose pithy statement rings no more true than now: “Judge me by the enemies I have made.”