What’s New About Conspiracy Theories?
Outsiders have always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies. Now our leaders are conspiracists, too.
"On the morning of December 4, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a warehouse worker and a father of two from Salisbury, North Carolina, told his family that he had a few things to do; loaded an AR-15, a .38-calibre revolver, and a folding knife into his car; and headed for Washington, D.C. Welch’s intention, he later told police, was to “self-investigate” a plot featuring—in no particular order—Hillary Clinton, sex trafficking, satanic rituals, and pizza.
At around 3 P.M., Welch arrived at Comet Ping Pong, a restaurant in Chevy Chase, where, he believed, children were being held in a network of tunnels. He made his way to the kitchen, shot open a locked door, and discovered cooking utensils. In an interview from jail, a few days later, he acknowledged to the Times, “The intel on this wasn’t a hundred percent.” He’d found no captive children in the restaurant’s basement; in fact, as many accounts of the incident noted, Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement.
Far from being dissuaded by the new “intel,” believers in what had become known as Pizzagate dug in. Welch had dabbled in acting—he’d appeared as a victim in a low-budget slasher movie—thus, it followed, his raid on the restaurant had been staged. That the plotters had gone to such lengths to cover their tracks showed just how much evil there was to hide. “This shit runs very deep,” a contributor to the subreddit thread r/Conspiracy wrote. All the while, the restaurant’s owner was receiving death threats.
Some ten months after the incident at Comet Ping Pong, a prediction surfaced on the Web that Clinton would soon be arrested. “Expect massive riots organized in defiance,” an anonymous poster, Q, warned on the message board 4chan. Other prophecies followed: Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, would also be arrested; members of the media would be “jailed as deep cover agents”; there would be a Twitter blackout heralding a government purge.
As Q’s prophecies failed, more converts were won over. QAnon, as Q’s world view came to be known, subsumed—or, if you prefer, consumed—Pizzagate, and then it, too, slunk off the Web and into the world. Last June, an unemployed former marine named Matthew Wright parked a home-built armored truck on the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which spans the Colorado River on the border of Arizona and Nevada. Wright, who, like Welch, was armed with an AR-15 and a handgun, blocked traffic for almost ninety minutes before surrendering to police. At one point, he held up a sign that said “Release the OIG report,” a reference to another QAnon prediction, involving the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. Following his arrest, Wright wrote a letter to the White House saying that he “simply wanted the truth on behalf of all Americans, all of humanity for that matter.”
America has always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies. According to some historians, the Founding Fathers were moved to write the Declaration of Independence by groundless fears of a British plot. “Conspiracy Theories in American History,” a two-volume encyclopedia, runs from “Abolitionism” to “ZOG.” (ZOG, an acronym used by survivalists, is shorthand for the “Zionist Occupied Government,” which, the encyclopedia explains, refers to an “international Jewish conspiracy to undermine U.S. sovereignty and true Christianity.”) In between are some three hundred entries, including “Black Helicopters,” “Contrails,” “Illuminati,” “Moon Landings,” “Pan Am 103,” and “Roswell.”
In this context, Pizzagate and QAnon could be considered madness as usual—just two late-alphabet entries in the annals of national crankdom. But is that all there is to it? Or are deeper, darker forces at work? A confirmed conspiracist now occupies the White House and, “no collusion” notwithstanding, there’s evidence that an international conspiracy put him there. Coincidence? To paraphrase Q, perhaps it’s time to “expand our thinking.”
Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum are professors of government at, respectively, Dartmouth and Harvard. A few years ago, they found themselves, in their words, “startled into thought.” Yes, they knew, crazy ideas were a fixture of American life. But not this crazy. “The subject required more detailed and thoughtful interpretation,” the two write at the beginning of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”
“Classic” conspiracy theories, according to Muirhead and Rosenblum, arise in response to real events—the assassination of John F. Kennedy, say, or the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Such theories, they argue, constitute a form of explanation, however inaccurate they may be. What sets theories like QAnon apart is a lack of interest in explanation. Indeed, as with the nonexistent child-trafficking ring being run out of the nonexistent basement, “there is often nothing to explain.” The professors observe, “The new conspiracism sometimes seems to arise out of thin air.”
The constituency, too, has shifted. Historically, Muirhead and Rosenblum maintain, it’s been out-of-power groups that have been drawn to tales of secret plots. Today, it’s those in power who insist the game is rigged, and no one more insistently than the so-called leader of the free world.
Donald Trump got his start in national politics as a “birther,” promoting the idea that President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Several news organizations have tried to keep track of the conspiracy theories Trump has floated since then. One list, posted by the Web site Business Insider, has nineteen entries. These include the claims that vaccines can cause autism and that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia may have been murdered.
“They’re saying they found the pillow on his face,” Trump said of Scalia, during the 2016 campaign, “which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.” (The Business Insider list is limited to full-blown conspiracy theories, and excludes the President’s more casual lies and fabrications.) “No president—indeed, no national official—has resorted to accusations of conspiracy so instinctively, so frequently, and with such brio as Donald Trump,” Muirhead and Rosenblum write.
With Trump in power, they worry, there’s a danger that his dark fantasies may be realized. Democracies depend on buy-in; citizens need to believe in certain basics, starting with the legitimacy of elections. Trump both runs the government and runs it down. The electoral system, he asserts, can’t be trusted. Voter fraud is rampant. His contempt for institutions ranging from the courts (“slow and political”) to the Federal Communications Commission (“so sad and unfair”) to the F.B.I. (“What are they hiding?”) weakens those institutions, thereby justifying his contempt. As government agencies “lose competence and capacity, they will come to look more and more illegitimate to more and more people,” Muirhead and Rosenblum observe.
Trump is so closely tied to the “new conspiracism” that it can be hard to tell the ranter from the rant. Then again, it’s hard to imagine his ascent without other key developments: the polarization of the electorate, a generation of attacks (mostly from the right) on the news media and government, and, of course, the rise of the Web. Spreading conspiracy theories once had a price—printing or even mimeographing a tract costs money—but now, as Muirhead and Rosenblum point out, anyone can post a madcap theory or a doctored photograph virtually for free.
The Internet revolution “has displaced the gatekeepers, the producers, editors, and scholars who decided what was worthy of dissemination,” they write. This has opened the way for “conspiracy entrepreneurs” who proffer “a seemingly infinite array of wild accusations.”
Is it possible to make a rigorous study of conspiracy theories? The task seems self-punishing, like trying to housebreak a chicken. Nevertheless, this is the mission that Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent have chosen to take on. Research into conspiracy theories “has been hampered by a lack of long-term systematic data,” Uscinski and Parent, political scientists at the University of Miami and the University of Notre Dame, respectively, write in “American Conspiracy Theories.” Fortunately, “methods are now available to better scrutinize what we think we know.”
One of these methods is polling. Uscinski and Parent commissioned a survey of more than twelve hundred Americans, which asked them to react to statements like “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.” On the basis of their answers, respondents were sorted into three groups: “high” (those predisposed to conspiratorial thinking), “low” (those opposed to it), and “medium” (those in the middle). Then the researchers looked at the cross-tabulations. The less educated the respondent, the more likely he or she was to be a “high.” The poor tended to be more conspiratorially inclined than the rich. Roughly equal proportions of Democrats and Republicans were given to conspiracizing, but among respondents who identified with neither party the proportion jumped.
The conspiracy-minded, Uscinski and Parent conclude, “deserve their reputation as outsiders.” They are less likely to vote and more apt to view bloodshed as a form of political protest. While eighty per cent of the “lows” rejected the idea that “violence is sometimes an acceptable way to express disagreement with the government,” among the “highs” that figure dropped to fifty-nine per cent. “It is disconcerting that, when asked about gun control, around half of those with higher conspiratorial predispositions wanted less strict gun laws,” Uscinski and Parent observe.
For more long-term data, they turned to newspapers. A battery of assistants sifted through more than a hundred years’ worth of letters to the editor published in the Times and in the Chicago Tribune. Letters that referred to any sort of group acting in secret “at the expense of the common good” were coded as “conspiracy talk.” (No effort was made to distinguish between “talk” about actual conspiracies, e.g., Watergate, and baseless speculation.) The groups denounced in such missives included the usual suspects—Catholics, Communists, Jews, the United Nations—as well as more surprising targets: ice companies, Lutheran newspapers, the Senate printing office, and the Prime Minister of Malta. The schemes, too, ranged all over the diabolical map, from Herbert Hoover’s secret business deals to bankrupt the U.S. to a C.I.A. plot to spread lesbianism.
When Uscinski and Parent tallied the number of conspiracy-coded letters published each year, they found no twenty-first-century surge in paranoid thinking. On the contrary, averaging out the short-term ups and downs, they conclude that the amount of “conspiracy talk” has remained constant since the nineteen-sixties and has actually declined since the eighteen-nineties: “We do not live in an age of conspiracy theories and have not for some time.” That we believe we do makes sense, since that sentiment, too, is a constant.
“It’s official: America is becoming a conspiratocracy,” the Daily News announced in 2011. “Are we living in a golden age of conspiracy theory?” the Boston Globe wondered in 2004. It’s the “dawn of a new age of conspiracy theory,” the Washington Post declared in 1994.
“Presumably we could multiply examples back to Salem in 1692, but you understand the point,” Uscinski and Parent write. “Conspiracy scares are ubiquitous.” According to their analysis, short-term variations in the rate of conspiracy theorizing do not coincide with changing economic conditions or advances in technology, like the Web.
Such is their take on “scares” that it’s hard to imagine them finding anything new in the “new conspiracism.” Still, when it comes to paranoia in high places, they share some of Muirhead and Rosenblum’s concerns. When there’s an uptick in conspiracy theorizing by members of the “élite”—defined as government officials, entertainers, and journalists—they observe a corresponding uptick in paranoid theorizing more generally. “This means you, Donald Trump,” they write.
In 2015, a young journalist named Anna Merlan took a cruise to Mexico. Most of the passengers on board the ship, the Ruby Princess, were ordinary vacationers, but a significant minority had signed on for a cruise-within-a-cruise, dubbed by its organizers Conspira-Sea. The Conspira-Sea crowd was treated to lectures from various “experts,” including Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor whose bogus studies launched the anti-vaxx movement. When Merlan returned to shore, she wrote a lighthearted feature about the experience, for the Web site Jezebel, in which she poked fun at the Conspira-Sea-ers for having lost touch with reality. Then Trump was elected and Edgar Welch showed up with his guns at Comet Ping Pong. Merlan decided that perhaps she was the one who was out of touch.
In “Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power,” Merlan immerses herself in various subcultures of suspicion. She visits a gathering of white nationalists in eastern Kentucky; attends the annual meeting of the Mutual U.F.O. Network, known as MUFON; and hangs out with proponents of “redemption theory,” a strain of nuttiness based on the idea that every American is owed a cache of cash held secretly by the government. One of her first stops is a rally of Pizzagate diehards in Lafayette Park, not far from the White House. This takes place in March, 2017, three months after Welch’s arrest. Merlan finds the crowd split into factions, each convinced that the other is made up of plants. She’s interviewing a woman who wants to be known as LaLa when she notices a man filming them with his phone. The man accuses LaLa of belonging to the “controlled opposition.” He, in turn, is approached by other phone-wielding demonstrators and charged with working to undermine the cause.
“You’re protecting child molesters, bro,” someone yells at him. But who’s supposed to be doing the controlling or why is never quite clear. “It seems that the core element from everyone inside this ‘movement’ is distrust for everyone around them,” LaLa relates to Merlan. “Nobody knows who’s on whose side, or what the truth is.”
Merlan encounters this dynamic frequently. People who believe conspiracy theories, it turns out, often suspect others who believe such theories of being crazy, or worse. At the MUFON conference, just outside Las Vegas, a speaker named Corey Goode, an eminent figure in the world of ufology, describes how, as a kid, he was taken to an underground facility at Carswell Air Force Base, in Texas, and trained to fight aliens. Later, Goode maintains, he roamed around the solar system doing “surveillance and recon,” until, finally, his government handlers performed “age regression” and sent him back home, once again as a child. Another U.F.O. researcher at the convention, Richard Dolan, tells Merlan he’s worried about claims like Goode’s, which “aren’t particularly credible.” Like the crowd in Lafayette Park, Dolan is concerned about plants, who he fears are out to undermine the whole ufology enterprise. History, he observes, is “replete with provocateurs and disinformation coming from U.S. government channels.”
Americans, as Merlan notes, have long suspected the government of suppressing the truth about extraterrestrials—such suspicions probably predate the term “extraterrestrial.” Other conspiracy theories, she observes, have even deeper roots. The charge of ritual child abuse, key to Pizzagate, was levelled against the Jews back in the Middle Ages. It has surfaced many times since, including during what’s become known as the Satanic Panic—a rash of allegations that sent more than twenty Californians to prison in the nineteen-eighties. (Virtually all the convictions have since been overturned.) Conspiracism, Merlan concludes, has “more or less always been with us”: pizza-parlor workers have simply replaced day-care workers, who replaced Jews.
But she also makes the opposite point. Like Muirhead and Rosenblum, Merlan believes that something novel and dangerous is going on right now. In her account, Trump gets a lot of the credit (or, if you prefer, the blame) and so, too, does the Internet. Merlan cites the Columbine shooting, which took place in 1999, “before the age of YouTube, easily buildable blogs, and widely used social media platforms.”After the shooting, no one came forward to propose that Columbine had been staged. Today, it is pretty much guaranteed that a mass shooting will give rise to a community on the Web that insists the victims are “crisis actors.” Merlan interviews Lenny Pozner, a former I.T. consultant whose six-year-old son, Noah, died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in 2012. Pozner has spent most of the past six years battling conspiracists who insist that the shooting never happened and that Noah never even existed. (In February, a Connecticut judge ordered Alex Jones, the owner of the Web site Infowars and a leading purveyor of the Sandy Hook-as-hoax theory, to sit for a deposition in a lawsuit brought by the parents of slain children. In the deposition, in March, Jones claimed that a “form of psychosis” had made him believe the massacre was staged.)
“This category of recent conspiracy theorists is really a global network of village idiots,” Pozner tells Merlan. “They would have never been able to find each other before, but now it’s this synergistic effect of the combination of all of them from all over the world. There are haters from Australia and Europe and they can all make a YouTube video in fifteen seconds.”
During the 2016 Presidential election, Zeynep Tufekci was watching tapes of Trump rallies when she noticed something odd. Tufekci, an associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a self-described techno-sociologist, found that YouTube began cuing up for her videos filled with racist diatribes and Holocaust denials. She wondered what was going on, so she created another account and began watching clips of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This time, she found herself directed to what she later described in the Times as “videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast,” including some that argued that the U.S. government was responsible for the attacks of September 11th.
Tufekci concluded that YouTube had decided that the best way to hold viewers’ attention was to push them toward more and more sensational material. The motive wasn’t political; it was commercial. And probably the scheme wasn’t the work of a cabal, or even a person, but of an algorithm. “What we are witnessing is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look ‘behind the curtain,’ ” Tufekci wrote.
At a minimum, what’s new about the “new conspiracism” is the number of people exposed to it. If there’s a “natural human desire” to get at some hidden truth, it’s never been easier to indulge that desire—or to imagine doing so—via YouTube or Infowars or Twitter. It’s unclear how many of those who are led to posts on the “truth” about 9/11 or listen to Alex Jones or follow Trump’s tweets actually believe what they encounter, but only a tiny fraction can create a very big problem; after all, almost two billion people click on YouTube videos every month. In a tacit acknowledgment of responsibility, Pinterest blocked vaccine-related searches on its sites after measles outbreaks in several states this winter. Facebook, too, recently said that it would “reduce the ranking of groups or Pages that spread misinformation about vaccinations.” In January, without ever explaining how its “up next” algorithm works, YouTube announced that it would “begin reducing recommendations of borderline content,” including videos “making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”
Meanwhile, Pizzagate stumbles on. A couple of months ago, another man was arrested in connection
with Comet Ping Pong—this one for setting fire to the place." ♦