United States of Conspiracy
Bob Garfield: This is an On The Media podcast extra. I'm Bob Garfield. For much of the past month a new edition has joined the audio scape of cities across the country. Fireworks, loud ones, keeping you up all night ones. During those sleepless hours in the dark of night, the brain can do some remarkable dot connecting. One Twitter thread went viral reading "My neighbors and I believe this is part of a coordinated attack on Black and brown communities by government forces. It's meant to sound like a war zone because a war zone is what it's about to become. The fireworks were being supplied by the NYPD to cause chaos and provide a pretext for a violent police crackdown."
It sounds unlikely, to say the least, and people reporting out the story have found little evidence to back it up, finding instead that vendors in neighboring states were selling the fireworks in bulk at a discount likely to young people looking to blow off steam. Those drawing connections between fireworks and law enforcement should maybe be given a pass because if you were a person of color in this country, the most outlandish conspiracies too often turn out to be real. As journalist Anna Merlan, author of Republic of Lies, explained to me in a conversation last year, conjuring them up is a pastime as old as history.
Anna Merlan: One of the earliest examples of that that we see and the one that you'll read about over and over is this suspicion among ordinary Romans that emperor Nero set the fires that burned much of Rome on purpose.TThat he set those fires to rebuild the city to his liking and to pin the blame for the fires on his political enemies, in this case, the early Christians. The phrase "Nero fiddling as Rome burns" comes from that. There was this urban legend that spread that Nero, while the fires were raging through the city, was at his vacation home plucking a lyre or fiddling, pacidly watching the city burn.
Bob: The proto false flag operation.
Anna: Yes, the proto false flag.
Bob: A lot of these rumors or myths persist sometimes for years, sometimes for centuries, chief among them the Illuminati, the blood libel, the notion that Jews use the blood of Christian children in their Passover Matsa, and the protocols of the learned elders of Zion. The Jews seem to be in the middle of a lot of this stuff but only for 2000 years. Why?
Anna: Probably the simplest explanation is that Jews have always been people without a nation state. They were always seen as an invading element and one that had economic and social power because Christians pressed Jews into the role of moneylenders in the middle ages, because there was a Christian prohibition on lending money to one another. Jews were made to do that work and then were held in higher suspicion because they were controlling an element of the economic system. We also know that in general, conspiracy theories are about outsiders but it's not just Jews. It's also masons, Catholics, any group that has seen it as an outside invading force.
Bob: What are the elements of a timeless conspiracy theory?
Anna: A timeless conspiracy theory has to generally explain a really consequential world event. It aligns with how people already view the world. We know that most conspiracy theories catch on among people for whom it confirms some political or social element of what they already believe. A timeless of conspiracy theory is not necessarily a simpler explanation, but it is an explanation that allows people to place blame on a specific person. The blame element is really important.
Bob: It's not my imagination is it that this right now is a particularly fertile and a febrile period.
Speaker 1: Don't ever think the globalist that have hijacked this country wouldn't stay in something like this. They kill little kids all day every day and it's not our government. It's the globalist.
Speaker 3: Should Obama just moved back to his homeland Kenya?
Bob: Hillary Clinton is a pedophile and a serial murderer.
Anna: And a giant lizard.
Bob: The a giant lizard.
David Icke: There is a predator race which take a reptilian form. They're feeding off humanity. They've turned humanity into a slave race. They demand human sacrifice.
Bob: Please explain to me why now more than ever?
Anna: It's not your imagination that we're seeing more conspiracy theories and that we're talking about them more. One thing that we know, especially about American history, is that conspiracy theories wax and wane throughout our history but that they tend to recur in force during times of social change, social upheaval, when we're really talking a lot about what we believe as a nation and who we are and having to re-examine ourselves in some way.
Bob: One thing you did not mention about this moment in time is that for the first time in the thousands of years of conspiracy theorizing, this is the first time we've had social media. Now you refuse to scapegoat Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and the book, but that is where this stuff lives for the most part and we produce this in spreads. No?
Anna: Yes. I would say that conspiracy theories, to the extent that they are a problem and not an extension of normal discourse, they are a social problem with technological elements. They are not solely the purview of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, but Twitter and Facebook and YouTube certainly serve to spread them and spread them in ways that the early internet never did both. Both Pizzagate and QAnon are really, really good examples of conspiracy theories that began online, primarily live online but started to leak offline with real world consequences.
Newscaster: Police say a man fired a rifle in a DC pizza place. As he claimed, he was investigating a widespread conspiracy theory about human trafficking.
Bob: Related to Pizzagate and geographically adjacent was the murder of Seth Rich, in what it was apparently a street robbery. But, oh no, no it wasn't a straight robbery at all.
Anna: Seth Rich was a young DNC staffer who was evidently, from what we know, was murdered while walking home from a bar at four o'clock in the morning in what seems to have been a failed robbery, but because his murder happened during the 2016 elections and because people immediately saw a political benefit to it, everyone from Juliana Assange to Roger Stone immediately started promoting an alternate theory of Seth Rich's murder.
Newcaster: Following Rich's death, there was suspicion that he may have been the source of the DNC emails that were leaked to WikiLeaks. Now not the Russians as the left claims. Now here's the we know--
Journalist: What are you suggesting?
Julian Assange: I'm suggesting that Al sources take risks and they become concerned to see things occurring like that.
Journalist: Was he one of your sources then? I mean--
Julian: We don't comment on who our sources are.
Journalist: Why make a suggestion about a young guy being shot in the streets of Washington?
Anna: One particularly out there conspiracy site claimed that when he was murdered he was not on his way home. He was actually on his way to talk to the FBI and tell them everything he knew about Hillary Clinton and the DNC's dirty deeds.
Bob: At four o'clock in the morning-
Anna: At four o'clock in the morning.
Bob: -he was waiting for the FBI.
Bob: While these things are often goofy, they are not benign. The family of Seth Rich was put through a horrendous ordeal on top of the tragedy of Seth's murder. In the case of Sandy Hook, the Alex Jones floated false flag, crisis actor nonsense, created this hostile atmosphere among the true believers who harassed and confronted the families of some of the dead children and have made their lives a living hell.
Anna: The fact is, increasingly every mass casualty event in the United States that is heavily covered in the media is subject to these accusations and the people who are the victims of it, the people who lose their loved ones, then have to contend with this second wave of tragedy when they are deluged by trolls and bad actors. It's also worth noting that a lot of these mass casualty events, most of them are mass shootings. A lot of the conspiracy theories around them are centered on the idea that they were perpetrated by the government to encourage some change to gun laws.
Alex Jones: Did you know assault rifles are used in 2% of crimes.
Lonnie Phillips: I know an assault rifle was used to murder my daughter in Aurora. I know that.
Alex: Well, I'm sorry that--
Lonnie: Well, you're sorry.
Alex: I didn't hurt your daughter. I mean that’s the big issue
Anna: Anybody who tells you that perhaps we should have fewer guns is, in fact, part of a government conspiracy to abridge our second amendment rights. In a very distinct sense, some of these conspiracy theories encourage us to stay in a really unhealthy political status quo and they make excuses for social and political phenomena that we could find a solution to.
Bob: It's easy to dismiss the purveyors of this kind of lunacy and scoundrels and paranoia and gullible fools. Jade Helm. The US army taking prisoners in Texas and warehousing them in abandoned Walmart. Seriously? You observe several times in the book that even the most outlandish conspiracy ravings do have some parallel in actual historical conspiracy. The government did round up Americans, Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Maybe I think it's crazy to believe airplane contrails are actually psychoactive chemicals sprayed into the atmosphere to brainwash or sedate the population, but the government did once experiment with LSD on unwitting subjects. There's history to be reckoned with.
Anna: There's all this historical evidence that especially in the United States and especially at the federal level, that the government does engage in genuine conspiracies. This is often forgotten or dismissed now, but the Church Committee Investigations in the 1970s revealed all of these seemingly wild and unbelievable government conspiracies that really did happen.
Frank Church: Many Americans who were not even suspected of crime were not only spied upon, but they were harassed, they were discredited, and at times endangered through the covert operations of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bob: That Senator Frank Church whose committee was looking into excesses in crime by the CIA and the rest of the intelligence community.
Anna: Yes. That was how we found out, among other things, that the FBI had been engaged in a serious prolonged effort to disrupt the civil rights movement and harass and terrorize civil rights leaders up to and including Martin Luther King Jr. The FBI sent Martin Luther King Jr a letter encouraging him to commit suicide.
Bob: Minority communities have been the brunt of the government mischief to say the least for, oh, I don't know, 200 years. There has been redlining, which was done with a wink and a nod between private powers and municipalities. There was the Tuskegee Study, which used black men as syphilis guinea pigs for decades. I think of the OJ case, white America was like, "Are you serious? A conspiracy to frame OJ Simpson?" Black America was saying, "Do you have any idea what we face with law enforcement and have faced for two centuries?" There is some there, there, and it's always been there.
Anna: Yes. There is much more reason for Black Americans particularly to continue to engage in some level of conspiracy theorizing, because there have been so many genuine conspiracies against Black Americans. You referenced the Tuskegee experiments. There was also the forced sterilization of Black women. There was also a bunch of human radiation experiments from the '40s to the '70s that primarily affected poor people, Black Americans, children in state care.
One thing that I write about in the book is that there are pretty unique conspiracy theories among Black Americans, but all of them are based in some level of history. A really good example is a belief that the levees during Hurricane Katrina were deliberately blown up, dynamited to drown poor Black communities. The basis of that conspiracy theory is an actual decision during the 1927 Great Flood to purposely dynamite levees, not in New Orleans, but just South of it, using the rationale that it was better to drown that area than the city proper. A blues singer from that time wrote a song called High Water Everywhere where he talks about Black families fleeing their homes and not being allowed to actually seek higher ground.
Bob: It wasn't necessarily entirely delusional when a woman named Dyan French Cole testified in 2005 before Congress, that she actually heard the explosions of levees being blown up in the midst of Katrina?
Dyan French Cole: I was on my front porch. I have witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levy and the debris that's in front of my door would testify to that. What do we mean breach?
Anna: That really speaks to something that a very beloved and central local community activist made this claim. This was something that she repeated until her death in 2017. We can also point out that a lot of what people feared would happen after Hurricane Katrina did happen. Poor Black neighborhoods were rebuilt at a slower rate than wealthier parts of town. People really were permanently displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina, just as people claimed was the plan all along.
Bob: We've demonstrated, I suppose now fairly well that sometimes there are conspiracies and the government is misbehaving in ways, large and small, but let's now return to bonkers. You've been at events where the speakers were talking about secret space armies and getting extravagant applause.
Anna: In the UFO world there is an increasing number of people who refer to themselves as whistleblowers and claim to have been part of some really out there government operations. The specific person you're referring to is named Corey Goode and he essentially claims that he spent many years fighting hostile aliens in a secret space force before the government performed an age regression on him and he woke up in his bed again and was six years old.
Bob: Yes. You got to do the age regression-
Anna: You got to do the age regression.
Bob: -otherwise people's memories of your exploits will get out to the public, so duh
Anna: Yes, but I have seen Corey Goode speak several times and he has gotten a standing ovation every time I've heard him speak, which is a weird experience.
Bob: You mentioned whistleblowers. A lot of the people, who are online all the time sharing and propounding conspiracy theories, see themselves as informants or as researchers, or even as journalists.
Anna: Yes. A lot of people that I talked to refer to themselves as being part of the research community or the truth community is another word for it. They do believe themselves to be engaged in deep research and independent journalism in the face of an establishment that doesn't want them to find the truth and the mainstream media as part of that establishment.
Bob: They may be pouring over a lot of stuff but with methods that have no resemblance whatsoever to academic or journalistic research.
Anna: One generalization we can make about a lot of these folks is that people in the really deep end of the pool of this so-called research or truth communities are only engaged in the fact finding that will confirm what they believe they already know, which is of course not how scientific research works. It's not how journalism works. It isn't receptive to new information that might change the thesis.
Bob: You don't spend a whole lot of time in the book talking about the psychology of conspiracy theorizing, but as we just discussed, you were at event after event where, oh, I don't know, I would say losers with idiotic ideas draw large enthusiastic crowds. How much of this- Yes, I hear you're umm-ing How much of this is not only the chance to belong to a group, but to be a schnuck who gets listened to, who gets respected?
Anna: I think the impulse to call people who believe in conspiracy theories losers or idiots is understandable, but it doesn't pay a lot of attention to these social and cultural reasons why people need or want conspiracy theories. The reality is that about one in three of us believe in conspiracy theories. That is a lot of losers. One thing that you're talking about is the desire for people to listen to your ideas. Yes, but it's also a desire to participate. So many people that I talk to feel locked out of systems of power, whether it's the political system, the healthcare system, the economic system.
They feel like they have all these forces arrayed against them and they have finally found a way to respond to it. They've also found a community. So many people I speak to, if they didn't have Pizzagate or if they didn't have the anti-vaccine world, they would not have a community. The deep end of conspiracy theorists them is a little bit of a trap because it draws you further and further into this community. It gives you a sense of belonging, it gives you a sense of purpose, but it also really isolates you from your actual community a lot of times, your family, your friends. It creates this enclosed ecosystem that's very hard to get out of and where you were going to feel very isolated should you leave.
Bob: I understand in communities of color that have suffered centuries of oppression and sometimes repression, but as you look at today's horizon, it doesn't strike me that the people who are out front with the most outlandish narratives are necessarily economically or socially disadvantaged. They don't strike me as being victims. They sound like victims, but I'm not sure why they view themselves that way.
Anna: That's absolutely true. One thing we're seeing a lot of now is people who perceive themselves as being under threat even from positions of power. One example of that, obviously, is the President-
Trump: It was a group of opponents that got together, sick people, and they put that graph together. I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It's fake, phony, fake.
Anna: -who believes himself to be under attack by a vast array of forces, despite being literally the most powerful person on earth. We also know that leaders, especially authoritarian leaders, engage in conspiracy theorizing for different reasons than insecure and threatened populations do. Political leaders use conspiracy theories to consolidate power to rally their base and to point out an outside enemy that needs protecting against. It is a really, really useful way to organize people behind you and also prevent them from questioning whatever you need to do to respond to that perceived enemy.
Bob: It will be lost on nobody that many of the examples that we've discussed here today have their origins on the far-right. Whether it's Seth Rich or Parkland, the stuff seems to live in these highly reactionary online communities, and to exist within those filter bubbles. That isn't to say that the left doesn't have its own brand of conspiracy theorizing, but it is coming these days, mainly from the right, isn't it?
Anna: Well, I think the difference is that far-right conspiracy theories have a much more efficient track to the mainstream. It used to be that far-right conspiracy theories went from fringe sites, some of them actual disinformation sites, to eventually places like Fox News, and that's sort of where they stopped. Now they have another stop, which is they go from Fox News to the President, or from fringe sites like InfoWars, straight to the President. The other thing is that far-right conspiracy theories have given rise to actual violent incidents.
Bob: Once again, the left has its share, too.
Anna: Yes. There are a number of examples of left-wing conspiracy theories. A big one is the idea that GMOs are actually bad for our health.
Bob: Genetically modified organisms.
Anna: The GMO foods are actually harmful to our health in a way that's being covered up by World Health bodies. Anti-vaccination claims are just as evident on the left as on the right and they're just as evident among wealthy extremely privileged communities as they are among poor communities, more so in fact. The other obvious example is the more sort of extreme ends of what has become called the resistancesphere.
Rachel Maddow: It makes the worst-case scenario really palpable. The worst-case scenario that the president is a foreign agent, suddenly feels very palpable.
Anna: The idea not just that there was some degree of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 elections, but that Trump himself is an actual Manchurian candidate, that he is an actual paid Putin employee.
Bob: What are we going to do about all this?
Anna: I think that, first of all, it was probably a mistake to let social media companies get so big that they have no idea what is on their platform, and they do a very bad job at policing or fact-checking themselves. I also think that probably we needed for the past few decades, a more just and transparent society, everywhere, from our political system, to our economic system to our healthcare system.
Conspiracy theories are the symptom. They're not the disease. They're a symptom of distrust and social instability. If we want to get to a place where they don't have quite so much negative influence on the culture, we need a stronger culture to begin with.
Bob: That gives me pause because what we've been describing is the nightmarish convergence of technology and greed and political opportunism, and human nature, and fairly widespread social injustice, none of which is going to disappear. This problem continues to get worse and worse. What is the logical extension of all of this out of control tinfoil hattery?
Anna: One thesis is that especially state-backed this information sources like the ones we've seen in Russia, the internet research agency, that one of their goals is to make the information ecosystem so chaotic and so unstable and so unreliable, that people start believing that the actual objective truth is not knowable, and that they should stop looking for it. It makes people resigned and paralyzed.
We know from a lot of research that exposure to conspiracy theories can sometimes lead people to inaction. Exposure to conspiracy theories about climate change, for instance, makes people less motivated to recycle or reduce their carbon footprint. Exposure to conspiracy theories about the political system being rigged makes people less likely to want to vote.
The result of all of this really is the danger that we will simply give up participating and just accept the way that things are. One thing that we can actually do is not just continue engaging and things like the political system and engaging in fights against misinformation, but also identifying where that misinformation comes from and what the point of it is, what it's meant to do to us. It's not just talking about conspiracy theories themselves. It's talking about where they come from and who they benefit politically.
Bob: Anna, thank you very much.
Anna: Thank you so much for having me.
Bob: Anna Merlan is author of Republic of Lies.
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