It’s no secret that conspiracy theories have long-pervaded psychedelic spaces, and perhaps it should come as no surprise. LSD enhances suggestibility in healthy volunteers. Mystical experiences occasioned by psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness. Ayahuasca enhances creative divergent thinking. There’s plenty of value (intellectual, entertainment, or otherwise) in playing around with ontological and epistemological questions. After all, what if our existence really is just a simulation? No really, what if the universe simulates itself into existence? But openness, creativity, and questioning can also contribute to the spread of demonstrably false (and injurious) information.

As we find ourselves confronted by the stark realities of the systemic nature of late-stage capitalism, there’s no denying that a small group of individuals actually does wield and exert near-unimaginable power over the world. That said, there are substantive (and evidentiary) differences between critical analyses of the limited beneficiaries of capitalism and concoctions like the far-right QAnon conspiracy, which posits that President Trump is battling an international pedophile ring led by luciferian Democrats and “the Deep State,” all of which is spelled out in coded posts on 4chan by someone named “Q.” While psychedelically-induced openness and suggestibility may offer unique and personally meaningful insights, in a world beset by pandemic, white supremacism, and ecocide, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out,” as Carl Sagan noted. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how some of this fervent postulation can cause real harms, both in the psychedelic scene and beyond. In recent months we have seen a multimillionaire investor in psychedelic biotech call for prioritizing the health of the economy over the health of individuals while promoting debunked treatment options. We have seen an ayahuasca grifter refer to the virus as a “necessary purge” of humanity. And we have watched several budding psychedelic businesses publish predatory press releases in anticipation of the pandemic increasing the demand for their products and services among people psychologically traumatized by the virus and affected by social distancing measures. We’ve even witnessed a viral video spread gross misinformation on COVID-19, directed by someone who was an early contributor to psychedelic mainstreaming. 

Now, we are seeing psychedelic evangelists promoting and monetizing coronavirus conspiracy theories, making suggestions that 5G mobile networks cause COVID-19, that Bill Gates is at the helm of a vaccine-induced depopulation plot, and that Anthony Fauci is directing some kind of elaborate coronavirus cover-up. 

London Real’s Brian Rose has raised over $1M to fund the Digital Freedom Platform after his interview with coronavirus conspiracy theorist David Icke was removed from YouTube

Brian Rose talks with Alex Jones on InfoWars about having his videos removed from YouTube and starting his “Digital Freedom Platform”

Brian Rose is a former Wall Street banker and host of London Real, a media platform where he interviews people about “alternative” perspectives on trending topics. 

Earlier this year, London Real released a documentary called ReConnect, which chronicles Rose’s voyage to Costa Rica to take ayahuasca. The documentary features ayahuasca-focused interviews with physician Gabor Maté, right-wing internet celebrity Jordan Peterson, bodybuilder Dorian Yates, How To Change Your Mind author Michael Pollan, Indian guru Sahdguru, entertaining-but-pseudoscientific author Graham Hancock, ayahuasca researcher Dennis McKenna, and professional rich guy Dan Peña. Rose promoted this documentary in a broadcast he aired in honor of #ThankYouPlantMedicine Day, on February 22, 2020, and Lucid News published an interview with Rose about the documentary in late April.

On April 7, YouTube removed a London Real interview that Rose conducted with conspiracy theorist David Icke (who helped popularize the conspiracy theory about a shape-shifting reptilian illuminati which secretly controls the world). The video was removed for promoting Icke’s false medical claims, including the idea that 5G technology is linked to coronavirus symptoms, that a coronavirus vaccine will include “nanotechnology microchips,” and that Bill Gates should be jailed for helping fund vaccine research.

“Now any content that disputes the existence or transmission of COVID-19, as described by the WHO [World Health Organization] and local health authorities is in violation of YouTube policies,” a YouTube spokeswoman told The Guardian. “This includes conspiracy theories which claim that the symptoms are caused by 5G.”

Other platforms, including Vimeo and Facebook, followed suit, and the United Kingdom regulatory agency Ofcom launched an investigation into London Live—an unrelated TV station—after it aired footage from another London Real interview with Icke about coronavirus.

In discussing the Rose situation, Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller made the point that he doesn’t necessarily agree with YouTube’s decision to remove the Icke interview. However, he disagreed with the way Rose conducted his interview with Icke overall, especially the lack of pushback on any of Icke’s false statements, presenting what he had to say as the truth. 

There are important and nuanced concerns about tech companies gatekeeping online information, and reasonable people may disagree about their positions. However, the evidence suggests that Rose has jumped at the opportunity presented by having his video removed to preach a smokescreen “free speech” agenda, while allegedly raking in over $1,000,000 from his followers.

In response to the video’s removal, Rose called upon his followers to support him monetarily in starting a “Digital Freedom Platform” and by spreading clips of the Icke interview online.

“The recent BANNING of our David Icke Interview by YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, and the UK regulator Ofcom shows us that we as citizens no longer have the right to publicly express our independent opinions,” Rose wrote on his website. “As a newly deputised member of the London Real Army, I am asking you to help make public this important David Icke interview BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY. This means uploading as many different video clips from the interview to ANY AND ALL SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS possible.”

Rose began the fundraising campaign for the Digital Freedom Platform and raised nearly $1,333,000 at the time these figures were last publicly posted to London Real’s website, and Rose hopes to raise $250,000 per month from donations moving forward. So far this money has helped fund multiple live-streams between Rose and Icke, and Rose says that it will be used to broadcast more interviews with widely discredited researchers like Judy Mikovits from the Plandemic conspiracy video (which we will return to later) and anti-vaxxer Rashid Buttar, a doctor who has been reprimanded for illegally marketing unapproved and adulterated drugs; to create an unspecified “blockchain platform” for delivering censorship-free content; to build a “Freedom App,” and; to take YouTube to court in Europe.

Psymposia has reached out to London Real for the most up-to-date figures on how much money the Digital Freedom Platform campaign has raised but we have not received an answer as of publication. 

“As the crowdfunding campaign gathered momentum, some began to question the validity of the Digital Freedom Platform and why it needed to be funded at all, since London Real already has a website where its interviews are uploaded,” Vice reporter Brendan Scott wrote, adding that platforms like BitChute and BitTube already exist and bill themselves as free-speech alternatives to YouTube and allow far-right conspiracy theory content. “A number of commenters called on Rose to disclose exactly how the money will be used—though initially these were in the extreme minority. In an affront to free speech, some of the loudest voices were blocked or muted.”

In response to this behavior, commentators like Fuller have made the criticism that it seems less like Rose wants to create a free speech platform, and more like he simply wants to replace YouTube as a gatekeeper, and give himself that power instead.

It remains to be seen just how much of a money grab the Digital Freedom Platform actually is. However, many critics have already begun pointing out that Rose is still hosting his content on other free sites, while telling followers he needs their monetary support to host videos on a brand new platform. 

Most recently, Rose’s Digital Freedom Platform hosted the second rendition of the discredited Plandemic documentary, which we will explore below.

Mikki Willis, who produced psychedelic documentary Neurons to Nirvana, is behind the Plandemic and Plandemic: Indoctornation conspiracy theory documentaries

Mikki Willis

Former model and actor Mikki Willis and his wife, Nadia Salamanca, co-founded the production company Elevate Films after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. Willis said he had a profound experience helping first responders and wanted to make films that showcased people and ideas that would make the world a better place, according to the Los Angeles Times. He has helped produce a range of films, including the indie comedy Shoe Shine Boys and a PSA about composting for the Nevada Board of Tourism, in addition to co-directing a concert movie for DJ Steve Aoki. Willis also produced and edited Oliver Hockenhull’s 2013 documentary on psychedelics, Neurons to Nirvana.

Neurons to Nirvana examined the field of medicalized, therapeutic psychedelic use. The film featured interviews with prominent figures such as Gabor Maté, Dennis McKenna, and Rick Doblin. 

This year, Willis has returned, attached to a more infamous documentary: Plandemic

This short documentary—created by Willis—features a wide range of misinformation about COVID-19 and is centered around Judy Mikovits, a discredited researcher who makes a number of claims downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic. In the film, Willis introduces Mikovits as “one of the most accomplished scientists of her generation.”

Among other conspiracies, Mikovits makes unsubstantiated claims such as, “wearing the mask literally activates your own virus;” that director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, is directing a cover-up and paying people off, and; promotes the use of hydroxychloroquine—a drug with no benefits for COVID-19 patients.

“We made the video to go viral,” Willis told the Los Angeles Times. “We knew the branding was conspiratorial and shocking. Unfortunately, in this age, you kind of have to be that to get people’s attention. But that it would go viral to this degree, I don’t think anyone could project.”

After Plandemic was removed from YouTube and Facebook for conspiratorial content, Willis said he was putting together a larger film which would present a fuller picture of Mikovits and the widely-debunked information she presented in the original video. 

On May 5, Willis released a video on Facebook downplaying the response to COVID-19 and doubling down on his support for medical “experts” who make unfounded claims.

Willis said that generations of “media manipulation” have caused us to be fearful and controllable, and that fear is now resulting in important voices being silenced. Presumably, this is in reference to the “silencing” of his own voice and the voice of medical “experts” like Mikovitz. Willis’s passive rhetorical approach invites the viewers to identify as “the silenced,” as well. 

“We sometimes extend that [fear] to allowing our voices to be silenced. To allow us to be stopped from holding accountable those who are the real threat to our survival,” Willis said. “And what I see online—so much of it is good-hearted citizens who care, unwittingly fighting for these wicked forces. And that’s part of the mind control. We actually fight for Big Pharma. I see so many messages from—obviously—from mothers and fathers who care. They have no idea that they’re fighting for the profiteers of Big Pharma. And, the only way that kind of insanity can occur is through fear. And so, the declaration that I am making—in this moment, right now, to you and to the world—is that I love this life so much that I am willing to die for it. Are you?”

Following his declaration, Willis tells all of “the doctors out there that are listening to this” that it is time to rise above the fear that is keeping them from speaking out (about unfounded COVID-19 theories).

“What are you willing to lose?” Willis asked. “Because you’re holding on, your fear of losing is causing the loss that we’re all experiencing right now—the loss of our health, the loss of our freedoms, the loss of our voice, our ability to speak truth into the world. So, I stand here right now, making the declaration that I am willing to die for this life. For life itself. For you. And, when we all stand up, unlike all of the holistic doctors who have suddenly been suicided—because they spoke up one at a time, or maybe three at a time—but when we speak up as a mass, together, there is no stopping us.”

On August 18, a follow-up to Plandemic—titled Plandemic: Indoctornation (yes, really…)—was released by Willis and premiered on Rose’s Digital Freedom Platform. Facebook has already started blocking users from linking to the video, and Twitter has added a warning, alerting users that the video is “potentially spammy or unsafe.” 

Willis did not respond to Psymposia’s request for comment.

Vaccinations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the World Health Organization Conspiracy Theories

Bill Gates

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, some figures in psychedelic research have promoted videos like Plandemic, and subscribed to other elaborate, but unfounded, theories. 

On April 9, Dr. Joseph Barsuglia—who has conducted research into 5-MeO-DMT—wrote a long-winded defense of antivaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s claims that Bill and Melinda Gates are trying to profit from, harm, and control the world’s population through mandatory vaccinations (he updated this post on April 12 and 14). In the past, Kennedy’s claims about the dangers of vaccines have caused members of his own family to write columns discrediting his legitimacy. 

On Facebook, Dr. Barsuglia wrote, “As context, BG is advancing mandatory vaccines and putting billions to create vaccines with numerous companies with the operating principle that ‘things won’t get back to normal until we have gotten a vaccine out to the *entire world*’ and he is calling for ‘digital certificates’ to be used to identify who received the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine.”

While Gates does support vaccination programs, perhaps it’s because more than 1.5 million people die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases, many of them children. According to the CDC, vaccines save 2.5 million children per year. As for a coronavirus vaccine, however, during a July 23 CNN town hall, Gates did say that, “By the end of 2021, if people are willing to take the vaccine, we’ll be able to stop the transmission in the rich countries and maybe within nine months after that, in the world at large” [emphasis added].

Dr. Barsuglia went on to write, “Unless you are eager to have a globally mandated vaccine that will be injected into your body and your family, and digitally tracked, I encourage you to scrutinize the hell out of the world’s richest man. This aggressive vaccine preacher/funder who is being placed in center stage in the mainstream media at this time.”

As far as “digital certificates” and digital tracking, BuzzFeed News traced the roots of this conspiracy theory to Gates’ March 18 Reddit AMA, where he said, “Eventually we will have some digital certificates to show who has recovered or been tested recently or when we have a vaccine who has received it.” This was amplified by the day after the AMA when they ran a post titled, “Bill Gates will use microchip implants to fight coronavirus” (even though microchips were never mentioned in Gates’ statement). The disinformation was spread throughout YouTube in April, and then by Roger Stone. On April 13, the New York Post ran a story called: Roger Stone: Bill Gates may have created coronavirus to microchip people. According to Zignal Labs, a media analysis company, conspiracy theories about Gates were being mentioned online 18,000 times per day by mid-April. Kennedy was also amplifying these claims on Instagram: throughout April, Kennedy’s conspiracy posts on Gates received over 900,000 views and 163,000 likes. (In one Instagram post Kennedy described Mikovitz as one of “her generation’s most accomplished scientists.”)

“The mandatory vaccine issue is and will continue to be a critical issue for the foreseeable future and we cannot dismiss this issue due to ‘conspiracy theory’ fatigue, complacency, desperation, or naivete. Much of the population is in a state of fear and confusion and thus more susceptible to being coerced into solutions that pacify our collective health and economic anxieties,” Dr. Barsuglia wrote on Facebook. “We can always trust and surrender to the flow of the universe, and at times we need to call out the darkness, grab our collective shadow by the balls 😉 and fight for our sovereignty.”

Dr. Barsuglia’s post was widely shared and garnered praise and agreement from the likes of Psychedelic Times founder Joe Mattia and a number of other psychedelic-adjacent holistic healers. As of the time of publishing, the original post had been shared 210 times and had 233 comments. 

When reached for comment regarding the post, Dr. Barsuglia said that he does not think the severity of coronavirus should be downplayed—though, many commenters used his post as a platform to do exactly that—and said his critique is more centered around the state of philanthrocapitalism and vaccines. He then threatened legal action against Psymposia for referencing his public Facebook post in our writing, and changed the privacy settings of the previously-public post so that only friends and friends-of-friends could view it.

Although philanthrocapitalism is a subject worthy of critique, it must be acknowledged that unfounded conspiracy theories claiming that the Gates Foundation is at the center of a globalist depopulation plot are frequently picked up by far-right outlets, white supremicist groups, and people who make a living spreading conspiracy theories. Such conspiracies—based on misinformation—make it increasingly difficult to sort fact from fiction, prevent constructive discussion or debate, and can cost unvaccinated children their lives.

In response to our questions, Dr. Barsuglia said that he did not want to promote any information which is factually inaccurate. However, in his post he makes false claims such as the World Health Organization (WHO) is “mostly owned by Gates.” The WHO is not owned by anyone—it is an agency of the United Nations. While the Gates Foundation is one of the largest NGO funders of the WHO, it only accounts for roughly one-tenth of the agency’s total funding depending on the year. Alongside inaccuracies like this, Dr. Barsuglia posted a link in the comments section to the debunked Plandemic video, commenting, “Game over.” 

Coronavirus conspiracy theories harm the same communities that drug prohibition has historically harmed

While it is alarming to see these theories promoted by some within the psychedelic community, it is not particularly surprising. 

One might expect skepticism from advocates of the potential healing properties of psychedelic drugs—substances which have been wrongfully criminalized by authorities for centuries. However, the current crop of conspiracy theories downplaying the dangers of COVID-19 or sparking fear about vaccinations actually serve to harm some of the very same groups that drug prohibitionists—who have devastated Black and Hispanic communities and violated the human rights of Indigenous populations—have targeted and oppressed throughout history.

Anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protesters have taken to the streets throughout the pandemic with slogans like “No Liberty, No Life,” which feels an awful lot like Willis’ claim that, because he loves this life, he is willing to die for it. What Willis and others refuse to acknowledge in their pleas for “status quo or death” is that they—mostly able-bodied white people—are not the ones most at risk of dying from COVID-19. A Vox article written by Maia Niguel Hoskin, titled “The whiteness of anti-lockdown protests,” explains that the mortality rate from COVID-19 was 2.7 times higher for Black people than white people, at the time of writing her article. A recent University of Minnesota study found that Black people accounted for 25% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota, while only making up 7% of the state’s population. And, Hispanic people made up 16% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, while only making up 6% of the state’s population.

As of August 18, the American Public Media Research Lab found that, compared to whites, the latest U.S. age-adjusted COVID-19 mortality rate for Black people is 3.6 times as high and the mortality rate for Indigenous people is 3.4 times as high.

It is not that white people are more immune to COVID-19, but that they typically have more resources available to them than those available to communities of color—a material reality of white supremacism in the US. For example, the average net worth of white families in 2016 was $171,000, while the average net worth of Black and Hispanic families was $17,600 and $20,700, respectively, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s 2017 triennial Survey of Consumer Finances.

In the event that these rich white folks find themselves with a cough and fever, they are more likely to have the reassurance and privilege of access to local testing centers and quality, unbiased health care. Meanwhile, Black people do not have access to quality and racially unbiased health care. Between 2010 and 2018, Blacks were 1.5 times more likely to be uninsured compared to whites. Black people also have a higher prevalence of heart disease and high blood pressure, and Black men have the shortest life expectancy of all other racial and gender groups—and racism and discrimination are the drivers of these poor health outcomes and inequities,” Hoskin wrote. “In fact, disparities such as these have never been more apparent than in this pandemic: Doctors have expressed concern that COVID-19 testing is not as accessible to Black communities. Meanwhile, Blacks and Latinos also make up the largest number of essential workers, who are most at risk of infection.”

Native Americans are suffering and dying disproportionately from COVID-19 as well. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams pointed out in a White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting on April 10 that poor social conditions in Native American populations—many of which are rooted in inadequate federal funding of the government’s trust and treaty responsibilities—leave tribes and their citizens at risk in times of crisis. Lack of basic infrastructure, such as water and sanitary facilities, inadequate housing, and harmful legacies of toxic industrial processes are among the many causes.

So, as this pandemic continues—and as more inevitably crop up in the future—it is on us to consider the impacts and dangers of the information (or misinformation) that we are spreading. Despite a horrific body count, “the next pandemic could ‘balloon faster’” than anything we’ve seen from COVID-19. However, the lessons many are failing to learn (such as masking and social distancing) are likely to result in tens of thousands of additional deaths (if not more) before this pandemic ends. 

“Conspiracy theory is a kind of epistemological cartoon about reality”

Psychedelic spaces have long been full of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and charlatans of all types, from pyramid schemes, to manufactured expertise, to snake oil cure-alls. It should be noted that this is largely the result of cultural taboos that have burdened psychedelics for decades, and perhaps the suggestibility of psychedelics themselves. Psychedelia’s position within what Alan Piper calls “the cultic milieu”—countercultural spaces with a range of ideologies that are strongly opposed to conventional beliefs and knowledge—makes participants prime targets for questionable actors. 

Solving the issue of promoting dangerous misinformation is well outside the scope of this article. But maybe we could, at least, agree to support each other in elevating critical thinking when the impacts of spreading potentially-dangerous theories could be deadly for our fellow humans. 

“The great evil that has been allowed to flourish in the absence of mathematical understanding is relativism. And what is relativism? It’s the idea that there is no distinction between shit and shinola, that all ideas are somehow operating on equal footing,” said Terence Mckenna in a conversation entitled, Trialogues at the Edge of the Millennium. “We all are very comfortable bashing science and flailing away at that, but that isn’t our enemy. Science is capable of undertaking its own reformation and critique, and has been engaged in that fairly vigorously for some time. The enemy that will really subvert the enterprise of building a world based on clarity is the belief that we cannot point out the pernicious forms of idiocy that flourish in our own community.”

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