Covid-19 has brought conspiracy theorists out of the shadowy corners of the internet into the mainstream.

It seems you can barely move in Bunnings for so-called "Karens" gabbing into their mobile phone about a "plandemic" and conspiracies about the government trying to strip us of our rights.

But for mother-of-two Julie Diamond, the coronavirus pandemic has been the final nail in the coffin for the conspiracy theories she believed for the past 35 years.

"I am embarrassed and sad to say that I used to be an anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist," Diamond, 50, says from her home in Bayside, Melbourne.

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When it came to conspiracy theories and alternative healing, her beliefs were the full buffet.

"I'm registered as a conscientious objector for both my kids," says Diamond, who is a small-business owner and is currently studying mental health as a mature age student.
"Both my kids were not immunised at all. I had two natural births, my daughter was a water birth at home.

"My kids didn't have the vitamin K shot, I had one ultrasound with each and I refused any further ones because I believed that could damage my baby. I was convinced I was doing the right thing."

Julie Diamond is a former anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist. Photo / Supplied
Julie Diamond is a former anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist. Photo / Supplied

Diamond fell into the world of conspiracy theories after she was kicked out of home at the age of 16. She was vulnerable, sleeping rough through winter when she was embraced by an alternative health community. She figured they were truth seekers and had all the answers.

She was also an early adopter of Facebook, finding an echo chamber within anti-vax and conspiracy theory groups to maintain and further strengthen her views.

The groups were a balm for her low self-esteem suffered by the severe dyslexia that had shut her out of formal education and made her feel disempowered by mainstream and scientific knowledge.

"It's a very seductive concept to think that you know information or that you know 'better' than someone else. This is what the conspiracy theory culture feeds on. That they're awake and everyone else is asleep.

"Now that I've found my way out of the rabbit hole I can see how some of my trauma, my sense of academic inferiority, and my place in the world affected my viewpoints," she says.

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Diamond now says her anti-vaccination views were an indulgence, cushioned by the privilege of living in a first-world country with herd immunity and a world-class health system.

She now says: "Vaccines are a humane and ethical act for equality and not a threat on an individual's personal rights."

Her children, now aged 14 and 21 are in the process of receiving all the scheduled vaccinations they missed out on when they were young.

Diamond's road out of the conspiracy theory world was a slow one. It took more than 10 years for her to fully discard the views she had held. Part of her reason for rejecting conspiracies was the hypocrisy of influencers and alternative health messiahs who encourage their followers to refuse vaccinations and Western medicine because of profiteering, and then go on to profiteer themselves.

"People ... are profiting from people's fear and traumas to fund their businesses. It makes business sense for people to be sick, so then these messiahs can come along and sell them a cure.

"There's no guidelines, there's no peer reviews, there's no committee checking in and there's no ethical training."

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Diamond also came to realise the claims of conspiracy theorists and alternative health gurus just didn't work, despite costing her thousands of dollars.

"I have done so many courses. I have done rebirthing, I have had crystals up my watchamadoodley, I have done primal scream therapy, I've done enclosure tank floating therapy. I have done all the therapy and nothing has bought me more peace, more clarity in my life then cognitive behaviour therapy, and mindfulness-based therapy which are all based on evidence and science and delivered by a registered psychologist who has had ethical training."

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Diamond was content to simply slip away quietly from the anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theory communities, but she now sees these people's beliefs as dangerous.

"I bumped into this guy who is a sport coach for kids and he wasn't wearing a mask so I offered him one and he refused it. He said, 'I just think if everyone took responsibility for their health, and meditated and ate all the right foods that would be a better approach,'" she says.

"His ego is so inflated right now. If we're going to get through this pandemic we all have to follow expert advice, not listen to people who say all we need is vitamin C and turmeric for breakfast."

As for the "Karens", Diamond says they are driven by entitlement and she is appalled by their belief individual choices are more important than the good of the community. But she says not all conspiracy theorists are a product of entitlement. Others are motivated by fear and feeling disempowered where they have been manipulated by misinformation and internet algorithms that serve to fuel suspicion and bias.

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Diamond says it's very difficult to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist because they will either dismiss you as one of the "sheeple" or accuse you of being part of the conspiracy. But she hopes telling her story might help some people think more critically about the rabbit hole they have gone down.

"If my little story connects to someone who is questioning the culture around conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination then for me it's worth doing."

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website