- Conspiracy theories are increasingly sinister and in the service of the world’s most powerful people.
- Investigative journalist Dave Neiwert argues that conspiracy theories such as QAnon, appeal to Americans’ desire for heroism.
- Neiwert wrote a new book, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As a teen who objected to sleeping at a decent hour, I would often lay in bed, fire up the shortwave transmitter from RadioShack, and listen to a total crank named Art Bell tell me that Bigfoot was real. Before there was YouTube, there was “Coast to Coast AM,” Bell’s multi-hour program on all things paranormal.
Conspiracy theories, as I understood them back then, were good, clean, frivolous entertainment – secret government teleportation programs, powered by alien technology, and interdimensional animals linked to the disappearance of cattle in the American southwest. It was science fiction with an additional element of fun: What if it’s actually real?
In 2021, conspiracy theories are no longer a source of amusement, nor are leading purveyors mere harmless weirdos. What was once AM-radio “Star Trek” is now state-sponsored disinformation and plagiarized anti-Semitism – a global cabal of cosmopolitan elites conspiring to abuse children – serving the interests of the world’s most powerful people, with heads of state and big tech companies profiting whenever someone new goes down the rabbit hole.
The popular, modern-day shills for conspiracism deal in much darker fare than a gift shop in Roswell
Dave Neiwert, a long-time investigative journalist and chronicler of the far-right, told Insider that the appeal of conspiracy theories is the key to not just understanding but combating the rise of conspiracism.
People, particularly those with authoritarian tendencies – on either the left or the right – desire simple explanations for complex phenomena that flatter their existing beliefs. And the darker the allegation, the more noble an “independent journalist” or Facebook user can feel in their crusade against mainstream notions of truth.
“Heroism is really a key component,” Neiwert told me over the phone, laying out the thrust of his most recent book, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us.”
The most popular genre of films is comic book characters engaged in binary combat: good versus evil. “I think we are seeing an America that’s increasingly educated to be heroes,” he said.
But most of us aren’t heroes.
Enter, then, the world of forbidden enlightenment; a select, online minority of people who get it – who can decode the seemingly banal and uncover the supposed evil within.
“One of the things that really offers is the sense that you are heroically saving the world by advancing this secret knowledge that’s been suppressed,” Neiwert said.
In the case of QAnon, a conspiracy theory which holds that an anonymous account on the internet reflected the insights of a high-ranking state official with the goods that Donald Trump was too modest to share, “people really see themselves as saving these children who are victimized by the global pedophilia ring, and against these nefarious conspirators.”
It’s not the encyclopedic knowledge of the conspiracy theorists that attracts followers, either.
“Particularly, post-9/11, it has reached a sort of new form where it is completely evidence-free,” Neiwert commented. It doesn’t matter that “Q” followers, yesterday, believed Hillary Clinton’s arrest was imminent, but what they believe, today, that holds together the online social club. Much more important than the truth of a prophecy is what the belief enables and justifies: the failures of the politicians they support – the deep state stopped it – and the belief that those who stand against them are irredeemable (in the case of QAnon, satanic, even). The group identity comes not from vindication that never comes, but in the persistent opposition to the hated and dehumanized “other,” whether it’s milquetoast liberals or Chinese communists.
That’s one of several curiosities about today’s conspiratorial mindset. Once upon a time, the en-vogue political conspiracy theories used to be oppositional. They did not echo, precisely, what one could hear a president (or now-former president) of the United States. (Fringe views are in Congress, including Georgia’s Majorie Taylor Greene or Colorado’s Lauren Boebert who are sympathetic to QAnon.)
That could not be said of the theories popularized since 2016, crafted to defend elite failures and amplified by the world’s most powerful people.
Under the guise of standing up to the establishment, far-right conspiracy theorists promoted the idea that the opposition party rigged a plebiscite and argued the former president should impose military rule to remain in power, culminating in the violent January 6 attack on democracy and the US Capitol.
Not everything that gets labeled a ‘conspiracy theory’ actually is one: Real conspiracies have limitations.
“There are three limitations in real conspiracies that do not exist in conspiracy theories,” Neiwert told Insider. “First is limitation in time: Conspiracy theories, such as the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ or the ‘New World Order’ – these go on for years and years and years, whereas most conspiracies that we actually know of are very limited in time.”
“Secondly,” Neiwert said, “they are very limited in the numbers of actors who participate. The real conspiracies that we know of involve very few actual conspirators, mainly because they can only exist as long as it’s secret – and the more people you have involved, the sooner that secret is going away.”
“And then the third,” per Neiwert, “unreliable conspiracy theories propose things that are basically global in reach, affecting massive numbers of people, whereas as a real conspiracy only affects a limited scope.”
Social media has to be part of the solution
One thing about conspiracy theorists, these days, is that they are gravely online, speaking to potentially millions of people who have clicked “like” and “subscribe.”
You can spend weeks trying to pull a family member back from the brink of “false flags” and pedophile cults and “PsyOps,” a process, Neiwert counsels, that will require patience, empathy, and a good deal of energy; in the meantime, however, for every person brought of the fog thousands more will have been radicalized by a viral meme.
“There’s gotta be social media reform,” Neiwert argued, saying the rise of viral posts has led to the worst proliferation of conspiracy thinking he’s seen since he started following the stuff in the 1990s.
Social media companies have been loath to do much about this, as removing influential conspiracy theorists from a platform is also removing a source of revenue. It took a failed coup d’etat, resulting in a handful of deaths and hundreds of injuries, to really drive home the urgency, with Twitter and Facebook then banning a president and many of his followers from their platforms. In the free market, ad revenue is ad revenue, even if it aids the rise of violent extremism.
The obvious risk of a harder line from social media companies is that legitimately differing opinions could be tossed in the same bin as the harmful cranks.
Conservative politicians have portrayed “Big Tech” as eager to silence dissenting voices, ignoring the fact that those voices only first went viral because of earlier content decisions. Indeed, Facebook only started removing groups that promote QAnon and right-wing paramilitary organizations after first coddling the far right out of fear of GOP backlash.
At the same time, recognizing that declining to grant someone a free platform is not quite the same as silencing them, is important. The present risk of fringe conspiracies on the digital equivalent of the front page can also not be ignored. Malicious actors are currently exploiting popular platforms for cynical purposes.
Any regulation of speech requires constant vigilance; there are always pitfalls. But consider, also, the status quo and its record: state actors using stolen emails, ripped out of context by partisan actors like WikiLeaks, to tilt an election; a genocide in Myanmar fueled by anti-Muslim disinformation posted by that country’s military; and a violent extremist in New Zealand live-streaming mass murder after being radicalized with the help of YouTube.
Belated efforts to confront this read more like public relations – a tag on a video, post, or tweet saying that the content above is disputed.
Unemployed journalists, displaced by social media, could be employed to identify and stop the plainly false from gaining traction. Misinformation, unchecked, “is what makes conspiracy theories go and what gives them their toxic power,” Neiwert said, “making it impossible for people to come to an agreement on what’s factual and what’s not.”
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