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'I hung up for the last time': How I lost my partner to conspiracy theories

Our reader documents her relationship with a partner who became an advocate of online conspiracy theories.

Image: Shutterstock/Olivier Le Moal

“WHAT DO YOU think about capitalism?”

This was his opener on our first date. I found it funny as I love chatting about economics and politics, but friends usually advised me to steer clear of such unromantic topics during a first encounter.

Enjoyable meet-ups followed, with healthily heated debates on the issues of the day. We shared a love of nature and a desire to live off-grid. We’d discuss how best to embrace liberal inclusive views. He seemed to have high regard for his mum as a strong woman and women generally, as well as his dad.

Despite a few bumps in the road here or there, as we were both long-term introverted singletons in our 30s, it was fun. We felt our values matched, and neither of us particularly wanted children. Lots of boxes proverbially ticked.

The conspiracy pathways

One day when we were doing what couples do – laughing about our first date – he revisited the topic of capitalism but this time, he mentioned the Rothschilds, the wealthy Jewish family famous for banking.

With many references to David Icke, the Holocaust-denying conspiracy theorist, my partner said he was in favour of capitalism, but not the type promoted by the Rothschilds, George Soros and the rest of the apocryphal Illuminati.

Having heard of Icke years prior, I’d read a book of his and was well aware of his odious views. I challenged him; he would only believe Icke was anti-Semitic if he saw him acting as such with his own eyes, he replied, and not some journalist’s interpretation.

My partner didn’t trust journalists yet knew I’d worked as one for a global media organisation. He said he trusted me. Despite my efforts to diversify his news sources, he chose to only watch YouTube, and while he would tell me I don’t understand the ‘deep state’, he wouldn’t say from whom he was getting this information. Our own ‘infowars’ had begun.

Friends and family had initially been delighted that I had met someone as I hadn’t dated anyone for so long. Once the conspiracy cracks started to show, most of my friends and relatives weren’t as concerned as me, instead saying I needed to step out of my echo chamber and that it was good he was challenging my views.

I took on their advice but kept having chats with one friend in the US who was ringing the alarm bell. I was battling with myself while feeling the unrelenting societal pressure to be coupled up. And so I persevered.

Mental health and conspiracy

With Covid-19 lockdowns taking hold, my partner had more time on his hands. This was when I witnessed a steep decline in his mental health. Another element we had bonded over as a couple was a surprisingly similar trauma that happened to each of us when we were younger, the kind of trauma that can change the course of your life.

He had been on a long-term path of substance abuse and addiction. I’d had years of turmoil, boozing too much in my 20s but had completed my education and was now in therapy and feeling much stronger.

I do believe that our very different ways of handling our trauma, and the access to mental health services we did and didn’t have, impacted our susceptibility to conspiracy theories. He bore the mental health scars of his past and they left him open to manipulation.

I felt compassion for him and he had come a long way from his difficult years. But I didn’t realise how fragile, disillusioned and isolated he still felt and had felt for a very long time.

His past addictions to drugs and sex had been swapped for conspiracy theories and Bitcoin, believing he was now part of a community. He felt he finally had power and control because he thought he had superior knowledge that only those in his community had.

Time and again, pandemic restrictions permitted, I would try to get him out for hikes or to gigs, and to watch online discussions about issues he said he cared about, but he would just clam up.

He would join me for occasions with family and friends, where he would be polite but silent, not partaking in conversation. It was more than him being uninterested; it felt like he was scared to enjoy new things or meet people in case he was laughed at. 

I spoke to his family about the way he was acting and the things he was saying to me. They were aware of some of his views, being particularly worried about his interest in Bitcoin, likening it to gambling.

Alluring echo chambers
Just like the conspiracy theories are fake, so are these communities found across the internet, from Telegram and Facebook to Parler and Gab. Conspiracist communities are created to exploit vulnerable people, not support them.
Conspiracy theories are as old as the Bible. They rely on the same 4D formula as disinformation, a weapon of war: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay.

The believers of conspiracy theories have been preyed upon and radicalised to further the aims of extremists; to spread division and in turn keep con artists, mostly white men, powerful and wealthy.

Every time a YouTube video or Facebook post by a conspiracy theorist – extremists like Alex Jones and Steve Bannon – is shared, they make money. Whenever a book or event ticket is bought – be it by David Icke or whomever – they profit.

For each purchase of a T-shirt or cap branded with MAGA or QAnon, more cash is funnelled into undermining the society and institutions conspiracy theory victims need to support them.

These money-making links have to be better publicised to help conspiracy theory believers see they are being used. Profit before people’s wellbeing is the capitalism I am not in favour of, as much as how lies travel faster than truth.

From the moon being man-made to the landing on the surface staged; the Syrian war not happening to climate change being a hoax; Donald Trump ‘denied’ his election win to Bill Gates’ plan to insert trackable chips in humans via vaccine, he was too far gone for me to reach him.

Too far down the rabbit hole

I tried to support my partner as best I knew how – by listening and sharing information that challenged the brainwashing. I relied a lot on materials by the UK-based HOPE not hate campaign, due to what I felt were scarce Irish resources.

What I learned through the HOPE not hate material included how to actively listen, to be encouraging while dropping small seeds of doubt about a theory into the conversation and to talk about ways to fact check stories, but he took this last point as a way to debunk authentic news articles by the mainstream media.

I also took on a strategy of acting like I was innocently asking open-ended questions, such as “why did that happen?” or “what interests you about this theory?” But too often I would be left vexed after listening to him for hours, and end up snapping at him with a “but why do you care about x, y or z?”

My partner’s defence usually came in three forms: freedom of speech for when he was rattling off racist, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic and other prejudiced theories; libertarian “whataboutery” based on circumstantial evidence to the point where nothing said could be true or untrue; and projection, when I was deemed the intolerant one. 

I did see moments of hope when he would critically think through a falsehood, but it would be one step forward and at least two back.

He believes these hate-filled conspiracy theories despite him being smart, having dual nationality, gay and mixed-race family members, and apparently loving me – a feminist who’d worked in the media and international development.

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A few days after the US Capitol terrorist attack by Trump supporters and conspiracy theorists, my partner phoned me. I’d travelled back to my family home, which regulations permitted at the time due to a family bereavement.

He wanted to discuss how my relative’s passing would be registered as a Covid death, despite me being in possession of the death notification form from the hospital, which did not state Covid-19 as the cause.

When he questioned me on this, I realised I had lost him. He then told me how the insurrection in Washington DC was a Democrat plot against Trump. I hung up for the last time.

Name of the author withheld to protect privacy.

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