Being mistaken for someone else can sometimes be funny, sometimes annoying. For author and activist Naomi Klein, being frequently mistaken for someone else started off being a little annoying and quickly became worrying. The someone else Klein – author of No Logo and Shock Doctrine – was being mistaken for was feminist turned conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth.

Whatever the reason for people's seeming confusion, Klein used it as a jumping off point to explore the rise in the popularity of extremist views such as Wolf’s claims that vaccinated people shed vaccine particles that can render unvaccinated women sterile. Klein told Brendan O’Connor that the name might be key to the confusion:

"I think there’s something about the name Naomi where it’s like it’s just uncommon enough maybe that the first Naomi that you come across gets stuck in your mind?"

Naomi Wolf was a leading light in what’s been called the third wave of feminism, worked for the Democratic Party in the US and was an advisor to Al Gore’s presidential campaign. As Klein puts it:

"Her values were legible, you know, she believed in democracy, she believed in human rights and women’s rights. And then things started to get very weird. And she’s not the only one."

Brendan suggests that we all know someone who’s gone off the rails since the pandemic and Klein wanted to use her frequent confusion with Wolf as a starting point for a deep dive into why people were ending up as proponents of wild conspiracy theories:

"The uncle, the brother, the yoga teacher who’s suddenly is talking about QAnon. And during Covid, she became one of the most influential vectors for medical misinformation, in particular related to women’s wellness, fertility."

And that leads us onto the claims Wolf promoted that unvaccinated people shed "particles" onto the unvaccinated that led to bleeding and fertility problems. Klein tells Brendan that the US national radio network NPR conducted polls into why so many people believed that particular conspiracy theory and many of them were convinced by a few posts from Wolf on the subject.

Wolf had started her journey down to conspiracy corner some years before the pandemic and Klein mentions a memorable time Klein was in Belfast and tweeted that the city, lacking as it did at the time 5G, "recalled the calmness of the 1970s".

Wolf got embroiled with Steve Bannon, former strategist for Donald Trump and now a kind of leader of an international network of far-right parties and their leaders. Wolf appears on Bannon’s podcast The War Room; and Klein explains why she’s a useful figure for Bannon to have around:

"I think what she gets out of him is pretty straightforward: a massive platform, you know, new readers, new subscribers. What he gets out of her is what he calls "MAGA Plus". You know, he’s a political strategist and his skill as a political strategist – and he's very skilful – is to look at the issues that his opponents, and the people, the issues and the people that his opponents have sort of left unattended. The disaffected."

According to Klein, in a lot of far-right parties it’s the men who have crossed over to the extremes, not the women. And Wolf gives Bannon a way into the traditionally Democrat women who were upset about lockdowns, about mask mandates and vaccine mandates. Bannon pivots then to focus on his extremely xenophobic views, what he calls border warfare. Klein explains that Bannon and many far-right political strategists use the image of the child to appeal to their followers:

"At the centre of it a lot of it is the image of the pure, Christian family, the child, who is being sort of invaded by these various forces. And that might be a vaccine, it might be migrants, it might be a telling of history that is threatening to national mythologies."

That’s a good encapsulation of a lot of what we’ve seen from the likes of QAnon and MAGA diehard Trump supporters over the last decade. And the success of Bannon and his ilk can be attributed to the failure of conventional politicians to deliver to people who feel let down, betrayed, left behind. As Klein says to Brendan to close out their conversation:

"Ultimately, I think the reason why conspiracy culture is spreading in the way that it is, is because people are trying to make sense of the fact that this – they feel betrayed by the system that told them that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they’d be able to get ahead. So, I think there are some systemic fixes that we need. We’re not going to fix this one uncle at a time, I’m afraid."

To hear Brendan’s full conversation with Naomi, click above.

Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane.