From “Meghan Markle is a robot” to “5G caused the coronavirus”, we take a look back at history’s wildest conspiracy theories – and the people who believe them.
When we look back on the age of coronavirus, I hope that we’ll remember the tireless efforts of healthcare professionals around the world, the lives of those we lost to Covid-19, the key workers who kept our country running, the inspiring leadership displayed by women around the world (here’s looking at you, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel), and the innovative ways we found to stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues.
I’ve no doubt whatsoever, though, that more of us will choose to focus on the utterly mad conspiracy theories surrounding the novel coronavirus, because… well, because that’s what humans do best, isn’t it? After all, look at our responses to 9/11, to the death of Princess of Diana, to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: all tragedies, all spun into dark conspiracies by people all over the globe.
As such, when we google ‘coronavirus’ in the years to come, I’ve no doubt many of us will fall into internet blackholes reading about how 5G networks apparently caused the disease.
Wait, people really believe that 5G caused coronavirus?
That’s right: Keri Hilson, an American singer with 4.2 million followers on Twitter, sent several tweets last month that attempted to link the coronavirus to 5G.
“People have been trying to warn us about 5G for YEARS,” she wrote. “Petitions, organisations, studies…what we’re going through is the effects of radiation. 5G launched in CHINA on 1 Nov 2019. People dropped dead.”
Despite the fact that, as a theory, it makes zero sense (radio waves can’t create a virus, which is what causes Covid-19), broadband engineers have been threatened by anti-5G protesters. Possible arson attacks against UK phone towers have been reported, too, prompting the UK’s national medical director to publicly brand the theory as “complete and utter rubbish.”
So why do our brains love conspiracy theories so much?
More people believe in conspiracy theories than you might expect. Over 50% of people – regardless of age, educational level, or political preference – believe the JFK assassination was the work of more than one person, according to a 2017 poll. Another 68% of Americans believe the government is hiding information regarding UFOs, while a 2016 survey found most respondents believed the government is covering up information regarding 9/11.
Why do we love these conspiracies so much? Well, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (which breaks down which elements humans desire for survival) after food and shelter our main concern in safety. And our safety is mainly compromised by the unknown.
As one BBC report explains: “The powerlessness inspired by modern times and this fear of the unknown causes our brains to provide answers and generate comfort. We cannot compute an unknown, unseen threat – but we have evolved to recognise other individuals as a danger. So our minds decide that some unseen set of human beings must be doing all these bad things for a specific, nefarious purpose. This is a more comforting, safe notion than ‘it’s just a bunch of random stuff that happens’.”
Why do we believe conspiracy theories in the face of so much contradictory evidence?
Researchers at the University of Berkeley have uncovered evidence which suggests that feedback, rather than hard evidence, boosts people’s sense of certainty when learning new things or trying to tell right from wrong.
“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” said lead author Louis Marti, a Ph.D. student in psychology.
This cognitive dynamic can play out in all walks of actual and virtual life, including social media and cable-news echo chambers, and may explain why some people are easily duped by charlatans.
Or, as assistant professor of psychology Celeste Kidd puts it: “If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information.”
With that in mind, then, here are some of the most intriguing and bizarre conspiracy theories to ever grace the internet:
Avril Lavigne was replaced by a doppelgänger
Back in 2005, a conspiracy surfaced on online forums about everyone’s favourite sk8er girl, Avril Lavigne. Namely, that she had died at some point between the release 2002’s Let Go and 2004’s Under My Skin, and been replaced by a doppelgänger named Melissa.
The (obviously baseless) theory claims that Lavigne, tired of her life in the public eye, hired a body double to represent her at red carpet events. Speculators insist that, when the singer later ‘passed away’, the record company apparently decided to hire ‘Melissa’ as Lavigne full-time.
Addressing the theory in an interview with EW, the real and very much alive Lavigne said: “It’s just a dumb internet rumor and [I’m] flabbergasted that people bought into it. Isn’t that so weird? It’s so dumb. And I look the exact same. On one hand, everyone is like, ‘Oh my god, you look the same,’ and on the other hand people are like ‘Oh my god, she died.’
… ditto Paul McCartney
If you strain yourself playing a few Beatles songs backwards, and get extremely literal with your interpretation of their Abbey Road album cover, you’ll no doubt come to the same conclusion as conspiracy theorists the whole world over: Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash back in 1966, and the band replaced him with an imposter.
Nowadays, the ridiculous rumour is an integral part of The Beatles’ lore, despite the band’s best efforts to nip it in the bud.
Indeed, as Paul told Rolling Stone in 1974, “Someone from the office rang me up and said, ‘Look, Paul, you’re dead.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t agree with that.’”
Fair enough, Paul.
Finland doesn’t exist
Apologies to the millions of Finnish people out there, but apparently they hail from a non-existent country. As the theory goes, Japan and the Soviet Union decided to – sometime around the mid-20th century – collectively spread the idea that there was a landmass known as Finland on the stretch of ocean.
Why? Well, to keep the good fishing between themselves, of course!
That’s right: theorists claim that the deal meant the Japanese were free to fish as much as they liked there without worrying about international laws, so long as they gave a share to Russia.
Hence the name ‘Finland’. Because what do fish have? Fins! Good grief.
The USA faked the moon landings
It’s an oldie, but a goodie. Because, all these years after Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap for mankind”, there are still those who claim he never set foot off this planet.
That’s right: conspiracy theorists claim that the US government, desperate to beat the Russians in the space race, faked the lunar landings with a little help from 2001: Space Odyssey director Stanley Kubrick. All they had to do was have Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin acting out their mission on a secret film set, located high in the Hollywood Hills, and voila!
Except… well, that’s not all they would’ve had to have done to make this hoax stick. They would’ve also needed to launch a very expensive rocket, too. A rocket that was visible through telescopes all over the world, no less. Likewise, they would have had to fake hundreds of photos and videos of the Apollo missions. And let’s not forget those hundreds of independently verified moon rocks, either.
Denver Airport is actually the gateway to hell
Believers claim America’s biggest airport, located in Colorado, is actually the gateway to hell. And, to be fair, Denver’s demonic horse statue (which some claim isn’t so much a representation of America’s Wild West, but transportation for one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse), terrifying murals and underground tunnels are decidedly ominous.
However, two of those issues can be put down to the airport designer’s questionable taste in art, really. And the latter? Well, those tunnels which have some people so excited are used for moving baggage and (sometimes) people around the terminal. Sometimes for storage of ordinary non-occult items, too. You know, the same as the tunnels at almost every single airport in the world.
The earth is flat…
Members of the Flat Earth Society claim to believe the Earth is flat. Walking around on the planet’s surface, it looks and feels flat, so they deem all evidence to the contrary, such as satellite photos of Earth as a sphere, to be fabrications of a “round Earth conspiracy” orchestrated by NASA and other government agencies.
“In a nutshell, it would logically cost much less to fake a space program than to actually have one, so those in on the Conspiracy profit from the funding NASA and other space agencies receive from the government,” the flat-earther website’s FAQ page explains.
… or hollow, at least
Not a fan of that ‘the world is a pancake’ idea? Maybe you’ll prefer the conspiracy which claims, according to Popular Mechanics, that the “Earth is hollow and that there might even be a whole other civilisation of advanced beings living in it”.
Area 51 is the cover-up
Everyone knows about Area 51 near Groom Lake, Nevada. Everyone knows this is where the U.S. government has long maintained a secret base. And everyone knows the conspiracy theory that claims Area 51 is home to UFO-related technology and experiments.
Then again, there are those conspiracy theorists who claim the government wants all of our focus to be on Area 51 so they can do the real alien dissections elsewhere, without fear of detection. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, we guess.
Meghan Markle is a robot
A clip circulating the internet shows Harry and Meghan sitting in the audience and applauding, but their faces aren’t moving, not even blinking, at all.
Before we debunk this once and for all, here’s the clip. And we’ll admit it does look weird…
So is she a robot? Nope, it was a stunt to promote the new Live Figures exhibit at Madame Tussauds London, the company revealed on its official website.
Katy Perry’s actually JonBenet Ramsay
Child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsay was found dead in the basement of her home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996 – and the case has remained unsolved ever since.
However, in the most disturbing conspiracy theory on this list, there are those who genuinely believe that the six-year-old didn’t actually die that day. Instead, she was kidnapped, smuggled away from the public eye and raised to become none other than Katy Perry.
This theory is based entirely on the fact that the singer shares some facial similarities with the tragic JonBenet, rather than any cold hard evidence. Because, as we all know by this point, logic and evidence are nothing in the face of good internet kindling.
Prince Charles is a vampire
In 2011, Prince Charles promoted a television show inspired by his fascination and interest in Romania’s Transylvania. He revealed his relation to 15th-century Romanian prince, Vlad the Impaler, who was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s 1897 story of “Dracula.”
It was enough. Forevermore, Charles will be known as the UK’s “vampire prince”, despite the fact that a) there’s no such thing as vampires, b) Vlad the Impaler was not an actual vampire (see ‘a’) and c) the genetic link between the two is incredibly slim. You’re probably as related to Vlad as Charles is, quite frankly.
Nicolas Cage is a time-travelling vampire
Remember the 18th century photo someone was trying to flog as ‘proof’ Nicolas Cage is a time-travelling vampire?
Before the post was removed, the Seattle-based man who found the photo was asking for $1 million in his eBay listing. “Personally, I believe it’s him and that he is some sort of walking undead / vampire, et cetera, who quickens / reinvents himself once every 75 years or so,” read the listing. “150 years from now, he might be a politician, the leader of a cult, or a talk show host.”
Cage, however, isn’t here for the theory. Firstly, he thinks he’s more attractive than the man in the photo. Secondly, he has pointed out that you can’t take photos of vampires. Thirdly, he insists he doesn’t drink blood.
Fourthly, it’s nonsense. That one’s from us here at Stylist.
… and Keanu Reeves is immortal
There’s an entire website dedicated to this theory, which is based almost entirely upon the fact that Keanu Reeves doesn’t seem to age in the traditional sense. And it’s linked him back to his “confirmed” identities throughout history, starting with actual Charlemagne.
“Aside from the striking resemblance, the account of the death of Charlemagne rise suspicion,” it reads. “First of all he crowned his son just before dying, just like he knew he was going to ‘die’, secondly his burial was rushed during cold weather.”
The site goes on to claim that Reeves has, during his “everlasting life”, come to appreciate the value of kindness.
Pinpointing the fact that the actor gave away 50 million pounds (out of 70) of his earnings from The Matrix sequels, the website quotes Reeves as saying: “Money is the last thing I think about. I could live on what I have already made for the next few centuries.”
Maybe… maybe Reeves is just a really nice guy with a really good skincare regime. Did you ever think of that, folks?