The COVID-19 pandemic introduced an unexpected new level of uncertainty into all our lives. It heightened fears over access to medical care, exposure to COVID itself, and also concerns about the stability of the economy, job security and availability of food.
At this time of uncertainty and change, more of us have been looking for solace in the nebulous world of psychics, palm readers and astrologers. According to Google Trends, searches for “birth chart” and “astrology” hit five-year peaks in 2020 and traffic for major astrology sites significantly increased in the US that year.
Videos offering spiritual coaching, analysis of lunar circles and predictions of the future have been flourishing on YouTube, Twitch, Instagram and TikTok - some of which get high engagement. In France, my home country, the hashtag #TirageCartes (#CardReading) has more than seven million views on TikTok and there are over 270,000 posts under the hashtag #Cartomancie (#Cartomancy) on Instagram. Likewise, there are 1,400 channels dedicated to #Voyance (Clairvoyance) on YouTube.
Take a trip into one of these hashtags and you’ll encounter a thriving community that live-streams tarot readings, educational videos on crystals, candles and plants as well as videos of rituals, spells and astrology predictions. The TikTok community in which such rituals thrive goes by different names, including "WitchTok," "SpiritualTikTok" and "AstrologyTikTok."
Occult misinformation and strategies to avoid content moderation
While many predictions and insights offered by fortune tellers are not problematic, hardly a day goes by that I don't see a link to a problematic video uploaded by a tarot reader or a clairvoyant on Telegram. Some examples of the projections made in those videos include: “COVID-19 vaccines will cause an exponential rise in deaths in the coming years”, “Vaccinated people only have a short time to live”, “The vaccinated will be taken to another planet in the near future”.
Even though platforms have been taking down many anti-vaccine videos, those uploaded by fortune tellers can be trickier to spot. They use a very large number of “algospeak” terms to evade content moderation: “Piquouze” or “Piquouse” (Prick), “Substance expérimentale” (experimental substance), “Injection fatale” (fatal injection), “Injections géniques” (gene injections) and even 💉, the syringe emoji. Our tool regularly detects the presence of such dog whistles in audio content, which most of the time comes with vaccine misinformation.
The misinformation spread by psychics online is not limited to health. In France, many pro-Kremlin groups hide behind their crystal ball or tarot cards to push narratives justifying the Russian state's invasion of Ukraine. Again, well aware that they are watched closely by content moderators, they rely heavily on algospeak terms to slip through the cracks. For example, some of the most commonly used are: “Celui qui fait du ski” (The one who goes skiing) in reference to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, “U.K.R” for Ukraine, #Coronavirusse (fusion of "Coronavirus" and "Russian"). In this video for instance, a tarot reader suggests that Zelenskyy is a satanic trans woman.
During the French election, it was not uncommon to run into psychic videos pushing the conspiracy theory that France's First Lady Brigitte Macron was born male under the name of Jean-Michel Trogneux. In this one for instance, a clairvoyant predicts that “A blond transgender will soon come out in President Macron’s entourage”.
Another pushes the false claim that Macron died a few years ago and that a look-a-like is doing some public appearances from time to time to avoid arousing public suspicion.
France’s interest in the occult
Talking about this emerging source of disinformation with some of my colleagues made me realize that this trend was particularly acute in France. This enthusiasm has been around for quite some time and extends through all segments of society, including the political class. Former president François Mitterrand consulted an astrologist throughout his tenure, seeking advice on issues like the Maastricht Treaty and the Gulf War. Likewise, General de Gaulle contacted an astrologist to get predictions on the end of World War II, as reported by France 24.
French interest in the occult is rising. An Ifop poll conducted in December 2020 found that nearly 70% of French youth between the ages of 18-24 believe in parasciences (including astrology, numerology, palm reading, clairvoyance and cartomancy). It also showed that four out of 10 French people now believe in astrology, an increase of 10 points since 2000.
Some studies have found a correlation between the belief in parasciences, the belief in conspiracy theories and science denial. A 2017 study by Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Conspiracy Watch and Ifop found that 73% of those who read horoscopes believe in collusion between the French Ministry of Health and pharmaceutical companies on the alleged harmfulness of vaccines.
The spirituality universe is very similar to QAnon, which has also been rising in France in recent years, with secret groups supposedly controlling the world. Charlotte Ward and David Voas even invented the term “conspirituality” to describe the intersection of conspiracy theories and spirituality.
From scam risks to real world harm
An unsurprising consequence of the growing demand for psychics, tarot readers, astrologers and other metaphysical practitioners is that scammers have flooded the market, cloning practitioners' accounts and using their likenesses to solicit payments from their followers for faux readings. Scammers generally copy the official account’s profile, then follow part of its followers and reach out to them to offer a reading. If the person says yes, the scammer directs them to a PayPal or to other payment app accounts. Once the person has paid the money, the scammer usually blocks them. According to Vice, impersonation is becoming one of the hottest issues in the online world of mystical labour. Consequently, platforms could soon come under increasing pressure to improve protection from online scams.
Behind this craze for the occult is also a potential real world harm which should not be overlooked. The popularity of videos on topics like the pandemic and vaccines is worrying. It means that some people attach scientific credence to astrological and cartomancy predictions and regard them as valid scientific disciplines. This turns into real world harm when people take important health-related decisions based on entirely unreliable predictions.
Fortune tellers’ foray into healthcare is likely to continue, going hand in hand with an increasing demand for astrologers, tarot readers and clairvoyants online. The need for robust analysis and expert guidance to avoid any real world harm will grow accordingly.