Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (2023)

In my defence, it was never my intent to write about it. I did not have time. No one asked me to. And several people strongly cautioned against it. Not now – not with the literal and figurative fires roiling our planet. And certainly not about this.

Other Naomi – that is how I refer to her now. This person with whom I have been chronically confused for over a decade. My big-haired doppelganger. A person whom so many others appear to find indistinguishable from me. A person who does many extreme things that cause strangers to chastise me or thank me or express their pity for me.

I am referring, of course, to Naomi Wolf. In the 1990s, she was a standard-bearer for “third wave” feminism, then a leading adviser to US vice-president Al Gore. Today, she is a full-time, industrial-scale disseminator of unproven conspiracy theories on everything from Islamic State beheadings to vaccines. And the worst part of the confusion is that I can see why people get their Naomis mixed up. We both write big-idea books (my No Logo, her Beauty Myth; my Shock Doctrine, her End of America; my This Changes Everything, her Vagina). We both have brown hair that sometimes goes blond from over-highlighting (hers is longer and more voluminous than mine). We’re both Jewish.

There are too many instances and varieties of identity confusion to summarize here. Like the time I offended a famous Australian author by failing to remember our prior encounter at a Christmas party hosted by our shared publisher (it was Wolf’s publisher, not mine, and I had been to no such party). Or the time Jordan Peterson slammed me on his podcast for allegedly writing The Beauty Myth (to be fair, he also slams me for things I have written). Or the guy who tweeted that I had been losing my mind for years and now equated having to get a Covid vaccine with Jews in Nazi Germany having to wear yellow stars – linking, of course, to a statement by Wolf saying that very thing.

There was even a moment, while reading an article in the Guardian about her being arrested at a protest in New York, when I experienced the unmistakable chill of the doppelganger, an uncanny feeling Sigmund Freud described as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar”.

“Her partner, the film producer Avram Ludwig, was also arrested.”

I read the sentence to my partner, the film director and producer Avram Lewis (who goes by Avi).

“What the actual fuck?” he asked.

“I know,” I said. “It’s like a goddamned conspiracy.”

Then we both burst out laughing.

Most confusingly, my doppelganger and I once had distinct writerly lanes (hers being women’s bodies, sexuality, and leadership; mine being corporate assaults on democracy and the climate crisis). But over a decade ago, she started talking and writing about power grabs under cover of states of emergency – and the once-sharp yellow line that divided those lanes began to go wobbly.

By early 2021, when she was casting nearly every public health measure marshalled to control the Covid pandemic as a covert plan by the Chinese Communist party, the World Economic Forum and Anthony Fauci to usher in a sinister new world order, I began to feel as if I was reading a parody of The Shock Doctrine, one with all facts and evidence carefully removed, and coming to cartoonishly broad conclusions I would never support. And all the while, my doppelganger troubles deepened, in part because I was relatively quiet in this period, isolated in my Canadian home and unable to perform so many of the activities that once reinforced my own public identity.

In those lonely months, I would wander online to try to find some simulation of the friendships and communities I missed, and find, instead, The Confusion. The denunciations and excommunication (“I can’t believe I used to respect Naomi Klein. WTF has happened to her??”). The glib expressions of sympathy (“The real victim in all this here is Naomi Klein” and “Thoughts and prayers to Naomi Klein”). It was an out-of-body experience: if she, according to this torrent of people, was me, who, then, was I?

All of this may help explain why I made the admittedly odd decision to follow my doppelganger into the rabbit hole of her rabbit holes, chasing after any insight into her strange behaviour and that of her newfound allies that I could divine. I recognize that this decision is somewhat out of character. After all, for a quarter of a century, I have been a person who writes about corporate power and its ravages. I sneak into abusive factories in faraway countries and across borders to military occupations; I report in the aftermath of oil spills and category 5 hurricanes. And yet in the months and years during the pandemic – a time when cemeteries ran out of space, and billionaires blasted themselves into outer space – everything else that I had to write or might have written appeared only as an unwanted intrusion, a rude interruption.

Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (1)

In June 2021, as this research began to truly spiral out of my control, a strange new weather event dubbed a “heat dome” descended on the southern coast of British Columbia, the part of Canada where I now live with my family. The thick air felt like a snarling, invasive entity with malevolent intent. More than 600 people died, most of them elderly; an estimated 10bn marine creatures were cooked alive on our shores; an entire town went up in flames. An editor asked if I, as someone engaged in the climate change fight for 15 years, would file a report about what it was like to live through this unprecedented climate event.

“I’m working on something else,” I told him, the stench of death filling my nostrils.

“Can I ask what?”

“You cannot.”

There were plenty of other important things I neglected during this time of feverish subterfuge. That summer, I allowed my nine-year-old to spend so many hours watching a gory nature series called Animal Fight Club that he began to ram me at my desk “like a great white shark”. I did not spend nearly enough time with my octogenarian parents, who live a mere half-hour’s drive away, despite their statistical vulnerability to the deadly pandemic that was rampaging across the globe and despite that lethal heat dome. In the fall, my husband ran for office in a national election; though I did go on a few campaign trips, I know I could have done more.

My deepest shame rests with the unspeakable number of podcasts I mainlined, the sheer volume of hours lost that I will never get back listening to her and her fellow travelers who are now in open warfare against objective reality. A master’s degree’s worth of hours. I told myself it was “research”. That this was not, in fact, an epically frivolous and narcissistic waste of my compressed writing time or of the compressed time on the clock of our fast-warming planet. I rationalised that Other Naomi, as one of the most effective creators and disseminators of misinformation and disinformation about many of our most urgent crises, and as someone who has seemingly helped inspire large numbers to take to the streets in rebellion against an almost wholly hallucinated “tyranny”, is at the nexus of several forces that, while ridiculous in the extreme, are nonetheless important, since the confusion they sow and the oxygen they absorb increasingly stand in the way of pretty much anything helpful or healthful that humans might, at some point, decide to accomplish together.

For most of the first decade of my doppelganger trouble, I didn’t bother much with correcting the record. I told myself that getting confused with Naomi Wolf was primarily a social media thing. My friends and colleagues knew who I was, and when I interacted with people I didn’t know in the physical world, her name did not used to come up; neither were we entangled in articles or book reviews. I therefore filed away Naomi confusion in the category of “things that happen on the internet that are not quite real”.

Back then, I saw the problem as more structural than personal. A handful of young men had got unfathomably rich designing tech platforms that, in the name of “connection”, not only allowed us to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers but also actively encouraged us to seek out those exchanges that mentioned us by name (AKA our “mentions”). When I first joined Twitter back in 2010, and clicked on the little bell icon signifying my “mentions”, my initial thought was: I am reading the graffiti written about me on an infinitely scrolling restroom wall.

As a frequently graffitied-about girl in high school, this felt both familiar and deeply harrowing. I instantly knew that Twitter was going to be bad for me – and yet, like so many of us, I could not stop looking. So perhaps if there is a message I should have taken from the destabilising appearance of my doppelganger, this is it: once and for all, stop eavesdropping on strangers talking about you in this crowded and filthy global toilet known as social media.

I might have heeded the message, too. If Covid hadn’t intervened, and upped the stakes of the confusion on pretty much every front.

“Really?” Avi asked. It was 11 o’clock on a warm night in early June 2021 and he had walked in on me doing yoga before bed, a nightly practice to help with back pain. When he arrived, I was in pigeon pose, breathing into a deep and challenging hip release. And, yes, OK, I was also listening to Steve Bannon’s daily podcast, War Room. Life had been hectic lately, with the end of the school year and Avi’s campaign for federal office heating up, so when else was I supposed to catch up on Other Naomi’s flurry of appearances?

A couple of months earlier, Wolf had released a video claiming that those vaccine-verification apps so many of us downloaded represented a plot to institute “slavery for ever”. The apps would usher in a “CCP-style social credit score system” in “the West”, she said – a reference to China’s all-pervasive surveillance net that allows Beijing to rank citizens for their perceived virtue and obedience, a chilling hierarchy that can determine everything from access to schools to eligibility for loans, and is one piece of a broader surveillance dragnet that pinpoints the location of dissidents for arrest and ruthlessly censors speech that casts the ruling party in a critical light. The “vaccine passports” were like all that, Wolf warned, a system that “enslaves a billion people”. The apps would listen into our conversations, track where and with whom we gathered, tell on us to the authorities. This, according to my doppelganger, is what Joe Biden was about to bring to the United States, using Covid as the cover story.

Having these incendiary claims come from a once-prominent Democrat was irresistible to the rightwing media. Suddenly she was everywhere: Fox’s (now canceled) Tucker Carlson Tonight, along with other shows on the network, as well as Bannon’s War Room and many lesser-known platforms. All of this activity meant that keeping up with my doppelganger was an increasingly time-consuming undertaking, thus the need to multitask while doing yoga.

My obsession had opened a growing gulf between Avi and me. And not just between us – it was intensifying my already deep pandemic isolation, cutting me off further from other friends and family. No one I know listened to War Room, and I felt increasingly that it was impossible to understand the new shape of politics without listening to it. Still, it had gone pretty far: for days, I had been unable to get the show’s rabidly anti-communist theme song out of my head (“Spread the word all through Hong Kong / We will fight till they’re all gone / We rejoice when there’s no more / Let’s take down the CCP”).

After the Bannon-yoga incident, I pledged to give it a rest, to put this least charming of pandemic hobbies aside. It seemed like the right time to reassess anyway. Twitter had just suspended Naomi Wolf’s account, seemingly permanently. I wasn’t comfortable with this kind of heavy-handed corporate censorship, but I told myself that Wolf losing her main tool of continuous disinformation surely meant that she wouldn’t be able to get herself (and me) into nearly so much trouble.

“I’ll block Twitter,” I told Avi. I promised to spend the whole summer not only helping more with the campaign but also focusing on our son and the rest of our woefully neglected family.

Here is how my relapse happened, and I’m not going to sugarcoat it. During a vacation in Prince Edward Island, the back pain had gotten worse, and I decided to seek professional help. I set off midmorning, under clear skies on a virtually empty two-lane road banked by sand dunes, red cliffs and crashing Atlantic waves. As I drove, I realized I was something I had barely been in 16 months: alone. Alone and surrounded by natural beauty. Elation flooded my body, down to the tips of my fingers clasping the steering wheel.

In that perfect moment, I could have listened to anything. I could have rolled down the windows and filled my ears with the surf and the gulls. I could have blasted Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which I had recently rediscovered thanks to Brandi Carlile’s cover. But I didn’t do any of that.

Instead, I touched the purple podcast app, pulled up War Room, and read the capsule summary of the most recent episode. It was a speech by Donald Trump, recorded live, in which he announced that he was suing the big tech companies for deplatforming him, followed by reaction from …

What? Why her?

I scrolled down and saw that I had missed several other recent appearances while abiding by my no-Wolf diet. I gulped them all, one after another. And that’s how I ended up on the side of the road, with my hazards on, late for a much-needed treatment, on my first vacation in two years, scribbling in a tiny red notebook as I tried to transcribe the words coming through my phone’s speaker: “black shirts and brown shirts”, “Fauci demonic”, “petrifying”, “your body belongs to the state”, “like China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization”, “geotracking”, “evil x2”.

Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (2)

In my meager defense, Wolf’s elevated status on Bannon’s podcast marked a major development in the life of my doppelganger. It’s one thing to be invited on to a flagship show of the Trumpian right to freestyle about vaccine passports or to trash Joe Biden – any semi-prominent self-described Democrat would be welcome to pull that stunt. It’s quite another to be the person whom Steve Bannon goes to for exclusive reaction to one of the first post-White House speeches by Donald Trump – a man whom the vast majority of Bannon’s listeners are utterly convinced is the rightful president of the United States (and whom Wolf had referred to, in her earlier life, as “a horrible human being, an awful person”). It’s not just that it sells books and subscriptions to her website. It signals real power – the ability to reach and potentially influence the behavior of millions of people.

“Action! Action! Action!” That is War Room’s mantra. Bannon repeats it often. It appears on a plaque behind his head when he broadcasts. He sends it with the pieces of content he pushes out on Gettr (“the Twitter killer”) and in his newsletter.

He means it. Unlike Fox News, which, despite its obvious bias, still has the trappings of cable news, War Room has built an explicitly activist media platform – or, more precisely, a militarist one. Rather than television’s airbrushed talking heads, Bannon cultivates a feeling that his audience is part of a rolling meeting between a commander and his busy field generals, each one reporting back from their various fronts: the Big Steal strategy (challenging the results of the 2020 election); the precinct strategy (putting ideological foot soldiers in place at the local level to prevent the next election from being “stolen”); the school board strategy (challenging the “woke” curriculum as well as masks and vaccine policies).

If Naomi Wolf was Bannon’s go-to guest not just to rail against vaccine mandates but now to live-spin Trump’s speeches, that meant she had crossed an entirely new threshold, becoming a full-blown player in this world. Shortly after, Wolf would go so far as to join Trump’s class-action lawsuit against Twitter as a co-plaintiff, challenging her own ousting from the platform (though she still claimed to “profoundly” disagree with Trump “ideologically”). It was there, on the side of that road, that I became convinced that whatever was happening with her wasn’t just relevant to me because of my admittedly niche doppelganger problem – it was far more serious than that. If someone like her could be shifting alliances so radically, it seemed worth trying to figure out what was driving that transformation – especially because, by then, it was also clear that quite a few prominent liberals and leftists were making a similar lurch to the hard right.

Even after following Wolf’s antics for years, or rather, after having them follow me, I was taken aback by the decisiveness of this boundary crossing. How did she – a Jewish feminist who wrote a book warning how easily fascism can throttle open societies – rationalize this alliance with Trump and Bannon? How, for that matter, did Bannon – a proud anti-abortion Catholic who was once charged with domestic assault and whose ex-wife told a court that he didn’t want their daughters “going to school with Jews” – rationalize teaming up with Wolf? (Bannon pleaded not guilty to the domestic assault charges, which were dismissed after his wife did not show up in court, and he denies the remark about Jews.)

Wolf was not merely a regular guest on Bannon’s War Room; she was fast becoming one of its most recognisable characters. At the peak of their collaboration, even as she ran her own DailyClout website, Wolf would appear on War Room nearly every single weekday for two weeks. They even partnered up on co-branded “Daily-Clout War Room Pfizer investigations” into various vaccine rabbit holes. Clearly, neither was letting past principles stand in the way of this union.

What I was trying to figure out was this: what does this unlikeliest of buddy movies say about the ways that Covid has redrawn political maps in country after country, blurring left/right lines and provoking previously apolitical cohorts to take to the streets? What did it have to do with the “freedom fighters” who were now threatening workers at restaurants that checked for proof of vaccination? Or blocking ambulances outside hospitals that required their staff to get vaccinated? Or refusing to believe the results of any elections that didn’t go their way?

Or denying evidence of Russian war crimes? Or, or, or …

The reshaping of politics that is one of Covid’s primary legacies is far bigger than Wolf and Bannon, of course. The hallucinatory period when the pandemic melded with economic upheavals and climate disasters accelerated all manner of strange-bedfellow coalitions, manifesting in large protests first against lockdowns and then against any sensible health measure that would have helped make the lockdowns unnecessary.

These formations bring together many disparate political and cultural strains: the traditional right; the QAnon conspiratorial hard right; alternative health subcultures usually associated with the green left; a smattering of neo-Nazis; parents (mainly white mothers) angry about a range of things happening and not happening in schools (masks, jabs, all-gender bathrooms, anti-racist books); small-business owners enraged by the often devastating impacts of Covid controls on their bottom lines. Significant disagreement exists inside these new convergences – Wolf, for instance, is neither a QAnon cultist nor a neo-Nazi. Yet, galvanised by large-platform misinformers like her and Bannon, most seem to agree that the pandemic was a plot by Davos elites to push a re-engineered society under the banner of the “Great Reset”.

If the claims are coming from the far right, the covert plan is for a green/socialist/no-borders/Soros/forced-vaccine dictatorship, while the new agers warn of a big pharma/GMO/biometric-implant/5G/robot-dog/forced-vaccine dictatorship. With the exception of the Covid-related refresh, the conspiracies that are part of this political convergence are not new – most have been around for decades, and some are ancient blood libels. What’s new is the force of the magnetic pull with which they are finding one another, self-assembling into what the Vice reporter Anna Merlan has termed a “conspiracy singularity”.

Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (3)
Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (4)

In Germany, the movement often describes its politics as Querdenken – which means lateral, diagonal, or outside-the-box thinking – and it has forged worrying alliances between new age health obsessives, who are opposed to putting anything impure into their carefully tended bodies, and several neofascist parties, which took up the anti-vaccination battle cry as part of a Covid-era resistance to “hygiene dictatorship”.

Inspired by the term, but taking it beyond Germany, William Callison and Quinn Slobodian, both scholars of European politics, describe these emergent political alliances as “diagonalism”. They explain: “Born in part from transformations in technology and communication, diagonalists tend to contest conventional monikers of left and right (while generally arcing toward far-right beliefs), to express ambivalence if not cynicism toward parliamentary politics, and to blend convictions about holism and even spirituality with a dogged discourse of individual liberties. At the extreme end, diagonal movements share a conviction that all power is conspiracy.”

Despite claims of post-partisanship, it is rightwing, often far-right, political parties around the world that have managed to absorb the unruly passions and energy of diagonalism, folding its Covid-era grievances into pre-existing projects opposing “wokeness” and drumming up fears of migrant “invasions”, alien abductions, as well as “climate lockdowns”. Still, it is important for these movements to present themselves as (and to believe themselves to be) ruptures with politics-as-usual; to claim to be something new, beyond traditional left/right poles. Which is why having a few prominent self-identified progressives and/or liberals involved is so critical.

When Wolf first started appearing on rightwing media outlets in 2021, her posture was reticent, anything but defiant. She talked about having voted for Biden, stressed that she used to write for the New York Times and the Guardian and appear on MSNBC, described herself as a liberal “media darling”. But now, she said, rightwing shows like Tucker Carlson’s and Steve Bannon’s were the only ones courageous enough to give her a platform.

For their part, every time a fiery rightwing show had Wolf on as a guest, the host would indulge in a protracted, ornate windup listing all of her liberal credentials, and professing shock that they could possibly find themselves on the same side. “I never thought I would be talking to you except in a debate format,” Carlson said the first time he had Wolf on. Then, referring to a tweet in which Wolf said that she regretted voting for Joe Biden, he added, “I was struck by the bravery it must have taken you to write it – I’m sure you lost friends over it, and for doing this [show].” Wolf smiled wistfully and nodded, accepting the hero’s welcome.

When she appeared on the podcast hosted by one of Britain’s most vocal climate change deniers and far-right provocateurs, James Delingpole, he began by saying, “This is so unlikely … five years ago, the idea that you and I would be breaking bread … I sort of bracketed you with the other Naomi – you know, Naomi Klein, Naomi Wolf, what’s the difference?” (Insert silent scream from me.) He went on: “And now, here we are. I mean, I think we are allies in a much, much bigger war. And you’ve been fighting a really good fight, so congratulations.” Once again, she drank it in, playing her demure role on these awkward political first dates.

As time went on, and Wolf became more of a fixture, she seemed to relish her new persona, eagerly playing the part of the coastal liberal elite that rightwing populists love to hate. The first time she went on his show, she told Bannon, “I spent years thinking you were the devil, no disrespect. Now I’m so happy to have you in the trenches along with other people across the political spectrum fighting for freedom … We have to drop those labels immediately in order to come together to fight for our constitution and our freedoms.”

That is the key message we are meant to take away from diagonalist politics: the very fact that these unlikely alliances are even occurring, that the people involved are willing to unite in common purpose despite their past differences, is meant to act as proof that their cause is both urgent and necessary. How else could Wolf rationalize teaming up with Bannon who, along with Trump, normalized a political discourse that dehumanized migrants as monstrous others – rapists, gang members and disease carriers? This is also why Wolf leans so heavily and continuously on extreme historical analogies – comparing Covid health measures to Nazi rule, to apartheid, to Jim Crow, to slavery. This kind of rhetorical escalation is required to rationalize her new alliances. If you are fighting “slavery for ever” or a modern-day Hitler, everything – including the companion you find yourself in bed with – is a minor detail.

People ask me variations on this question often: What drove her over the edge? What made her lose it so thoroughly? They want a diagnosis but I, unlike her, am uncomfortable playing doctor. I could offer a kind of equation for leftists and liberals crossing over to the neofascist and authoritarian right that goes something like: narcissism (grandiosity) + social media addiction + midlife crisis ÷ public shaming = rightwing meltdown. And there would be some truth to that bit of math.

The more I learn about her recent activities, however, the less I am able to accept the premise of these questions. They imply that when she went over the edge, she crashed to the ground. A more accurate description is that Wolf marched over the edge and was promptly caught in the arms of millions of people who agree with every one of her extraordinary theories without question, and who appear to adore her. So, while she clearly has lost what I may define as “it”, she has found a great deal more – she has found a whole new world, one I have come to think of as the Mirror World.

Feminists of my mother’s generation find Wolf’s willingness to align herself with the people waging war on women’s freedom mystifying. And on one level it is. As recently as 2019, Wolf described her ill-fated book Outrages as “a cautionary tale about what happens when the secular state gets the power to enter your bedroom”. Now she is in league with the people who stacked the US supreme court with wannabe theocrats whose actions are forcing preteens to carry babies against their will. Yet on another level, her actions – however sincere they may be – are a perfect distillation of the values of the attention economy, which have trained so many of us to assess our worth using crude, volume-based matrixes. How many followers? How many likes? Retweets? Shares? Views? Did it trend? These do not measure whether something is right or wrong, good or bad, but simply how much volume, how much traffic, it generates in the ether. And if volume is the name of the game, ex-leftist crossover stars who find new levels of celebrity on the right aren’t lost – they are found.

Wolf’s skills as a researcher may be dubious, but she is good at the internet. She packages her ideas in listicles for the clickbait age like her 2020 video “Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps” and her event “Liberate Our Five Freedoms”. Her website, DailyClout, demonstrates Wolf’s success in mastering the art of internet monetization: not only collecting attention but turning that attention into money. She takes advertising; sells swag festooned with a stylized wolf logo (“The power is in the pack”); and charges $7 a month for a “premium” membership and $24.99 a month for a “pro” one.

Seen in this context, the name Wolf chose for her site is telling. Because what Wolf turned into over the past decade is something very specific to our time: a clout chaser. Clout is the values-free currency of the always-online age – both a substitute for hard cash as well as a conduit to it. Clout is a calculus not of what you do, but of how much bulk you-ness there is in the world. You get clout by playing the victim. You get clout by victimizing others. This is something that is understood by the left and the right. If influence sways, clout squats, taking up space for its own sake.

And if there is a pattern to the many, many conspiracies Wolf has floated in recent years – about National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, about the 2014 Ebola outbreak, about the arrest of former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, about the results of the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence, about the Green New Deal – it is simply this: they were about subjects that were dominating the news and generating heat at the time.

Naomi Klein on following her ‘doppelganger’ down the conspiracy rabbit hole – and why millions of people have entered an alternative political reality (5)

And nothing had ever been nearly so hot, so potentially clout-rich, as Covid-19. We all know why. It was global. It was synchronous. We were digitally connected, talking about the same thing for weeks, months, years, and on the same global platforms. As Steven W Thrasher writes in The Viral Underclass, Covid-19 marked “the first viral pandemic also to be experienced via viral stories on social media”, creating “a kind of squared virality”.

In practice, this squared virality meant that if you put out the right kind of pandemic-themed content – flagged with the right mix-and-match of keywords and hashtags (“Great Reset”, “WEF”, “Bill Gates”, “Fascism”, “Fauci”, “Pfizer”) and headlined with tabloid-style teasers (“The Leaders Colluding to Make Us Powerless”, “What They Don’t Want You to Know About”, “Shocking Details Revealed”, “Bill Gates Said WHAT?!?”) – you could catch a digital magic-carpet ride that would make all previous experiences of virality seem leaden in comparison.

This is a twist on the disaster capitalism I have tracked in the midst of earlier large-scale societal shocks. In the past, I have written about the private companies that descend to profit off the desperate needs and fears in the aftermath of hurricanes and wars, selling men with guns and reconstruction services at a high premium. That is old-school disaster capitalism picking our pockets, and it is still alive and thriving, taking aim at public schools and national health systems as the pandemic raged. But something new is also afoot: disaster capitalism mining our attention, at a time when attention is arguably our culture’s most valuable commodity. Conspiracies have always swirled in times of crisis – but never before have they been a booming industry in their own right.

Almost everyone I talk to these days seems to be losing people to the Mirror World and its web of conspiracies. It’s as if those people live in a funhouse of distorted reflections and disorienting reversals. People who were familiar have somehow become alien, like a doppelganger of themselves, leaving us with that unsettled, uncanny feeling. The big misinformation players may be chasing clout, but plenty of people believe their terrifying stories. Clearly, conspiracy culture is fueled by deep and unmet needs – for community, for innocence, for inside knowledge, for answers that appear, however deceptively, to explain a world gone wild.

“I can’t talk to my sister any more.” “My mother has gone down the rabbit hole.” “I am trying to figure out how to get my grandmother off Facebook.” “He used to be my hero. Now every conversation ends in a screaming match.”

What happened to them?

When looking at the Mirror World, it can seem obvious that millions of people have given themselves over to fantasy, to make-believe, to playacting. The trickier thing, the uncanny thing, really, is that’s what they see when they look at us. They say we live in a “clown world”, are stuck in “the matrix” of “groupthink”, are suffering from a form of collective hysteria called “mass formation psychosis” (a made-up term). The point is that on either side of the reflective glass, we are not having disagreements about differing interpretations of reality – we are having disagreements about who is in reality and who is in a simulation.

For instance, in July 2022, Wolf went on a rightwing podcast carried by something called Today’s News Talk and shared what she described as her “latest thinking”. She had noticed that when she went into New York City, where the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated, the people felt … different. In fact, it was as if they were not people at all.

“You can’t pick up human energy in the same way, like the energy field is just almost not there, it’s like people are holograms … It’s like a city of ghosts now, you’re there, you see them, but you can’t feel them.”

And she had noticed something even more bizarre: “People [who are vaccinated] have no scent any more. You can’t smell them. I’m not saying like, they don’t smell bad or they don’t smell – like I’m not talking about deodorant. I’m saying they don’t smell like there’s a human being in the room, and they don’t feel like there’s a human being in the room.”

This, she explained to the host, was all due to the “lipid nanoparticles” in the mRNA vaccines, since they “go into the brain, they go into the heart, and they kind of gum it up”. Perhaps even the “wavelength which is love” was experiencing this “gumming up … dialing down its ability to transmit”. She concluded, “That’s how these lipid nanoparticles work.”

That is not how lipid nanoparticles work. It is not how vaccines work. It is not how anything works. Also, and I can’t quite believe I am typing these words, vaccinated people still smell like humans.

Why people believe Covid conspiracy theories: could folklore hold the answer?Read more

This, obviously, is gonzo stuff, the kind of thing that makes those of us outside the Mirror World feel smug and superior. But here is the trouble: many of Wolf’s words, however untethered from reality, tap into something true. Because there is a lifelessness and anomie to modern cities, and it did deepen during the pandemic – there is a way in which many of us feel we are indeed becoming less alive, less present, lonelier. It’s not the vaccine that has done this; it’s the stress and the speed and the screens and the anxieties that are all byproducts of capitalism in its necro-techno phase. But if one side is calling this fine and normal and the other is calling it “inhuman”, it should not be surprising that the latter holds some powerful allure.

In my doppelganger studies, I have learned that there is a real medical syndrome called Capgras delusion. Those who suffer from it become convinced that people in their lives – spouses, children, friends – have been replaced by replicas or doppelgangers. According to the film historian Paul Meehan, the discovery of the syndrome likely inspired sci-fi classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives. But what is it called when a society divides into two warring factions, both of which are convinced that the other has been replaced by doppelgangers?

Is there a syndrome for that? Is there a solution?

To return to the original question: what is Wolf getting out of her alliance with Bannon and from her new life in the Mirror World? Everything. She is getting everything she once had and lost – attention, respect, money, power. Just through a warped mirror. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer, a fallen angel, thought it “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. My doppelganger may well still think Bannon is the devil, but perhaps she thinks it’s better to serve by his side than to keep getting mocked in a place that sells itself as heavenly but that we all know is plenty hellish in its own right.

This is an edited extract from Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein, published by Allen Lane on 12 September at £25. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

Join Naomi Klein for a Guardian Live event on 27 September, in person in Manchester and livestreamed, when she will discuss Doppelganger. Book tickets here.

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