An 'old man in a chair' pulling rabbits from his bag of 'truths'
Vernon Coleman is peddling played-out Covid-19 conspiracy theories
An old man in a chair sits, legs crossed, next to a dark-wood bookcase stocked with hardbacks. He speaks of "the truth" about coronavirus and repeats many of the conspiracy theories we've heard elsewhere, but he does so calmly, reading from prepared notes, peering over half-moon spectacles.
He speaks with the structure, timbre and pace of the experienced wordsmith; indeed, Vernon Coleman is a prolific author and a former newspaper columnist. Importantly for his followers, he is also a doctor.
In latter years, major publishers have refused his work, he has resigned from newspapers whose editors disagreed with his opinions, and YouTube often deletes his videos. To his opponents, this validates the argument his material is dangerous; to his supporters, it validates the belief he is being silenced. Dr Coleman has alleged that pharmaceutical companies control Britain's National Health Service (NHS). He is anti-vaccine. He has claimed GPs are among the top three causes of death in the United Kingdom. In the 1980s, he called Aids "the hoax of the century". Now, he says the same of coronavirus.
The claim fits perfectly into the worldview of a man who has built a career on being anti-establishment. Even so, it's hard to dismiss him as a crank. His experience and credentials speak for themselves, and he is clearly a very erudite man -- not to mention one well versed in the art of persuasion.
Not for Dr Coleman the overwrought beseeching so common among conspiracy theorists. He doesn't insult and belittle those who do not readily accept tales of global perfidy, nor does he resort to the use of slogans and catchphrases which typify any modern movement.
Well, not quite. Not in the modern fashion, anyway. There are no memes or hashtags here. But sloganeering is an ancient discipline, just as at home in the steadier hands of an old academic as it is in the smartphone recording of a young internet influencer. Dr Coleman, in a video called "You've Been Brainwashed – Here's How They Did It", takes issue with the British government's use of slogans in its coronavirus response. He cites Orwell and applies Godwin's law, which would be hackneyed in the hands of most but which indicates his strategy of appealing to the layman in the most accessible manner.
He raises the old -- and misattributed -- Goebbels chestnut that if you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it, and follows on with the paraphrased, but at least correctly credited, Goebbels theory that "if you want to control the population and you have to deal with an opposition, then you should accuse the other side of the sin or the trickery which you yourself are using".
Here, Dr Coleman gets Orwellian himself. It's not so much doublespeak as propaganda in triplicate -- Dr Coleman accuses the enemy of what he himself is guilty, by way of accusing them of accusing others of what they themselves are guilty.
Convoluted? It's meant to be. It's meant to suggest the British government's reliance on catchphrases is a tactic that's deliberately dumbed down so as to make it easier for the masses to digest. This is surely correct, but are the motivations to keep a message simple and therefore easier to obey for the common good -- "Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS" -- or is it part of a more malevolent plot to ensure compliance with what Dr Coleman alleges is a depopulation drive?
Of course, the application of slogans is a deliberate tactic. Keeping your words short, rhythmic and easy to understand and repeat is first-semester stuff when it comes to public announcing. But Dr Coleman, in suggesting this is "psychological conditioning", neglects to mention this very tactic is embraced by the conspiracy theorists, too -- including by Dr Coleman himself.
In every video, he signs off by thanking us for watching "an old man in a chair". It's become his trademark. And in the "Brainwashed" video, as a counter to Boris Johnson's soundbites, Dr Coleman suggests his own: "Distrust the government, avoid mass media, fight the lies."
He is entirely serious, but in aping the government's slogan, he is being facetious. Or is he? After all, this is a man who, in 1989 while promoting a book, suggested an appropriate jingle for the campaign to fight Aids would be "Stop buggering about". He was indignant at the resultant withdrawal of support for this book and marvelled at these "stunningly ignorant" people.
His suggestion that Aids presents a minimal risk to heterosexual people (the rate of heterosexual HIV diagnoses in the US in 2018 was actually 24%, according to hiv.org) is one of the "many truths" that Dr Coleman claims to have exposed, leading to him being "banned by all mainstream media".
Now it is coronavirus which has him delving into his bag of "truths", and in doing so, taking the less imaginative approach favoured by less qualified commentators -- that of attempting to convince doubters by stating earnestly "these are the facts".
Government officials do not feel the need to specify their coronavirus briefings are "the truth". Newspaper articles are not prefaced with a qualification that what follows are "facts". But in their eagerness to convince us of their legitimacy, conspiracy theorists sprinkle these two words throughout their digital missives, so much so that the words themselves have become cliches.
Indeed, these self-proclaimed "truthers" are adept at sloganeering. Whether it is deliberate or merely a modern consequence, who knows? But their employment of a tactic that Dr Coleman criticises is just one of many contradictions.
They label the public "sheeple" and decry the "brainwashing" we have undergone, at the same time as unhesitatingly lapping up any conspiratorial crumb flicked their way. "Question everything", they insist, but then ignore us when we question them. They indignantly tell us to "Do your research", but fail to fact-check the material they share. They clamour for "freedom of speech", but kick dissenting voices out of their forums. They accuse the media of "scaremongering", and then tell us 5G is what's killing people, that our facemasks are making us sick, and that a coronavirus vaccine will implant tracking bugs in us. There is an unrelenting denouncement of "fake news" while disseminating that very thing.
The coronavirus crisis is labelled variously as a "plandemic" or a "scamdemic". Those who do not believe are urged to "wake up!", and material is distributed invariably with a plea to "share this with everybody before it gets taken down!".
And in that, we get a hint of their motivations. In the social media age, the share is the most quantifiable currency. It not only brings new names to the fore, it grants renewed momentum to discredited and vengeful public figures such as Judy Mikovitz, and it resurrects relics like David Icke -- and Vernon Coleman.
Don't imagine, either, that old-fashioned currency is not a motivation. The truther movement, among its higher ranks at least, is commercial. "Follow the money", we are told, to find what's really behind coronavirus. But banned videos resurface on for-profit platforms. Donations are sought for oblique "research". Public speakers charge thousands of dollars. Icke's website has a £99 (3,800 baht) paywall and a shop. And Dr Coleman's videos are rounded off with a two-minute entreaty to "ask everyone you know" to watch his channel and visit his website -- from where you can buy his books. QAnon, probably the leading conspiracy theory community, and certainly the most sophisticated, sells merchandise through Amazon. You can buy its slogans on T-shirts. Choose from one emblazoned with "The Great Awakening", or "Follow the White Rabbit" or "Where We Go One, We Go All", or perhaps you'd prefer a "Red Pill" or "Breadcrumbs" design. Yours for US$20 (618 baht) apiece.
QAnon's motivations are bigger than simply selling tat. The movement is starkly political; ferociously anti-Clinton and an unabashed supporter of another modern master of the slogan, Donald Trump. He, apparently, is the man who will bring down the illuminati that cooked up the coronavirus crisis. "Draining the swamp", they call it.
The average social media crusader is probably acting in the spirit of community. They believe in the theories and feel it is their duty to spread the material supporting them. It is unrealistic to expect them to apply the same due diligence that is a legal requirement of the mass media they are so suspicious of, and whoever is creating this content will understand this. Their agenda can be furthered by stoking a climate of fear (while accusing others of doing the same), fomenting urgency, and instilling in people the contagious conviction that they are underdogs rising up against enormous powers and unseeable evils.
Whether the agenda is politics or profit, once the people willingly do someone else's bidding, it's a clear sign the propaganda is working.
Fight the power. Fight the lies. Avoid mass media. Follow the white rabbit. Accuse your enemy of what you yourself are guilty. Wake up to the insidious use of slogans, and spread the word -- preferably using slogans.
Even an old man in a chair knows this.
Oliver Fennell is former foreign news editor, Bangkok Post.