The Interminable Logic of Conspiracy Theorists
Here’s a piece on which I’ve been working on-and-off for a few weeks. Don’t really know what to do with it. Most of it stems from my frustration of the spreading cancer of conspiracy theories and the number of people who believe in them, and this is an attempt to get that frustration out of my system. I considered documenting this more thoroughly with sources, but I figured there wasn’t much of a point; the only types of people who could possible read this are those not of a conspiratorial mindset who, at best, will find it mildly interesting, and those who are of said mindset and wouldn’t believe anything I have to say anyway. So here goes.
One of my prevailing interests over the last few years has been conspiracy theorists—the people themselves, that is, and not the ideas they believe and promulgate. I first became interested when a friend suggested I watch a ‘documentary’ entitled Loose Change, produced by a few film school dropouts who did half-assed research yet reached an audience of millions. A few years later another friend, shortly after Obama had been elected, revealed himself to be a conspiracy theorist (going on about the global warming hoax and, at one point, aliens, which easily resulted in one of the most bizarre and uncomfortable conversations I’ve had in a parking lot) and recommended The Obama Deception, a film by conspiracy king radio host Alex Jones—who, incidentally, produced later, revised versions of Dylan Avery’s Loose Change. To give credit where credit is due, The Obama Deception is much slicker than Loose Change—the music is eerier, Jones’s voice is more menacing, it appears unbiased because of Jones’s announcement that neither he nor his collaborators are partisan, and the film is populated with people who look like legitimate scholars (though, of course, none of them are). But I’m not here to dissect their work; I’m here to parse what fosters and perpetuates such thinking. So while I bought neither of the stories either were selling, it became very clear to me how someone could come under the spell of the conspiratorial mindset, but what was more interesting—and perhaps more disheartening—was that these seemingly earnest people were themselves engaging in the same kind of deception, short-sightedness, bias, and disinformation spreading that they accused their enemies and opponents of, yet the culture of conspiracy theorism has such a large presence on the web that any well-meaning and somewhat-intelligent person can get sucked into its never-ending echo chamber of lunacy.
It’s not like conspiracy theorists are some sort of new phenomenon. Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” offers a brief history of the conspiracy theory in America, and more importantly the mindset of conspiracy propagators, citing specific examples such as Joseph McCarthy or the John Birch Society as embodiments of the paranoid style. There is the prevailing sentiment of ‘us vs. them,’ with the ‘them’ some outside and inherently immoral force attempting to undermine the American way of life. There is the colossal dump of sources as evidence meant to shield the conspiracy theorist from criticism, as it would require a funded research project to go through all the information they’ve compiled to present their case. There is the re-tooling of reality in order to fit everything into their preconceived narrative. These tendencies parallel today’s conspiracy theorists, though I want to make clear that conspiracies do exist—the FBI program COINTELPRO could be considered one, or more famously the Watergate scandal—so I’ll demarcate more clearly what I mean when I say ‘conspiracy theory.’
My own definition of a conspiracy theorist (CT) is someone with a worldview in which disparate events can be stringed together casually and causally in order to form a picture of a secret cabal which manipulates national and/or international affairs concerning economics, politics, or culture in order to further an agenda of global governmental reconstruction. CTs are prone to misrepresenting or dismissing historical events or accounts, reports by mainstream media, or science. These elements are dismissed when they do not align with the CT’s worldview or are misrepresented when convenient to the CT in order to further his argument. Most importantly, the larger the conspiracy becomes, the less room is available for individual human action, resulting in a view that humans have very limited agency beyond what is immediately in front of them. There are varying degrees of conspiracy theorism; for example, those who believe the government knew in advance of and allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur, or purposefully orchestrated them but do not believe the government is attempting to create a global, single legislative body. Or those who, in the David Icke tradition, believe reptilian humanoids from Alpha Centauri (or whatever loony shit it is) are controlling the world from the moon. Or radical Christians who think every president who steps into office is the Antichrist. Or militias primarily located in the Midwest awaiting a barrage of black UN helicopters, or the KKK espousing the disintegration of ‘white culture,’ or neo-nazis, or sovereign citizens. The list goes on. I am myself exclusively concerned with those CTs touting that an elite, powerful group comprising business tycoons and politicians is covertly plotting to usurp all existing systems of power on our entire planet in favor of large police superstates.
Perhaps most interesting (and by extension, most frightening) is that the simple-minded reductionism CTs engage in is not entire dissimilar to what educated, working people do—it’s simply a matter that their worldviews are different. For example, CTs distrust and dislike the government, which is not an unpopular opinion. Where the CT smells deception in everything, the standard American is more likely to make snap judgments about their opposing political party or the group they deem responsible for some problem. So Democrats are, conspiratorially speaking, probably more apt to distrust Wall Street and police officers, or see their actions as inherently corrupt whether evidence supports it or not, whereas Republicans are more attuned to being suspicious of immigrants, homosexuals, Muslims, and so on. These, of course, are broad generalizations, and perhaps too stereotypical. But one need only peruse the comments section of any legitimate news or alternative news site to find hasty judgments being made by seemingly rational people. Where the CT differs is that he rejects that issues are divided along partisan lines; on the contrary, both political parties are in cahoots (with the business sector and the military and virtually every foreign government) to carry out the agenda established by the New World Order/Illuminati/Bilderberg Group/whatever.
And it’s not difficult to see how an individual could jump ship from being on one ‘side’ of the political divide to a fervent believer that everybody’s in on it to get everybody else. Like a lot of Americans (though this doesn’t apply exclusively to Americans), CTs distrust the government and the media because they feel they’re being lied to all the time, and they believe this with good reason, because both the government and the media lie a great deal. But instead of parsing through what each institution produces and attempting to understand its content and context, CTs reject any rational explanation in favor of believing the product is inherently a farce, nothing but manipulation and corruption continued. Conversely, CTs will attribute to these institutions qualities that they don’t have or make false assumptions. An illustration: Despite most major media outlets being owned by large corporations, there is good reason to believe that 1) media outlets are fiercely competing with other outlets for viewers/readers, that this competition outweighs an abstract hand forcing cooperation between them to only disseminate info the government approves of, and that 2) the people who work for these outlets have some shred of journalistic integrity, are interested in the truth, and are egoistic enough to want to break a big story and would not let something like a global conspiracy slip under the radar. The publishing of the Pentagon papers or the NSA files is evidence of this. Yes, there is evidence to the contrary, such as The New York Times withholding information about Bush’s deception concerning the invasion of Iraq until after the 2004 Presidential election. As damning and embarrassing as this is, it does not invalidate everything they publish, even if it does damage their credibility.
So it’s far more incredible to make the leap that all media were working in tandem with the government concerning the Boston Marathon bombing, the Newtown elementary school shooting, the Aurora theater shooting, the murder of two police officers in Las Vegas, and so on, to produce a narrative that the American people would swallow hook, line, and sinker, only to invariably fuck up when an itchy journalist reported shaky information or made speculations based on visuals alone. It is one thing to think that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was a false flag perpetrated by the government, but it is another to further conclude that the incident did not happen, that ‘crisis actors’ were used to create an aura of authenticity, that the children in question never existed, or that the entire town itself is one big plant, a scheme decades in the making just so the government could have some sort of excuse to pass gun control legislation; legislation which, of course, never passed, nor ever even got much attention.
What conspiracy theorism has built into itself is an inability to be rationally defeated, because its ideology (and in the terms I’m describing it, yes, I do think it’s an ideology) is inherently irrational. It is predicated upon selective skepticism, paranoia, and revisionism. It can be, though is not always, anti-Semitic and somewhat fascistic. Of course, this is not the disposition of every CT that exists, nor can I claim it’s the vast majority; it is, however, the default position of large swathes of the CTs you’ll encounter online in dens like InfoWars, StormFront, and Reddit. Its selective skepticism manifests in its rash decisions of what information can or cannot be trusted and for what reason. So a New York Times article can only be valuable to a CT insofar as it demonstrates an apologist allegiance to the state, contains a slip-up that reveals the intentions of the elites, or fails to mention an item the CT deems to be of the utmost importance. It is paranoid in believing that virtually everyone who works in government is consciously attempting to undermine the foundations of the country, that people who disagree with them on internet forums are not regular Joes but government ‘shills,’ and that the only mistakes the government makes can be detected by CTs, though not the general public. As an example, if one were to point out the Bay of Pigs as a failure of the elite to a CT, the CT would respond that this failure was intentional in order to make it appear as though their control is not complete; otherwise, the CT would muse, their power would be too obvious. On the other hand, CTs will swap YouTube videos of government officials supposedly screwing up and saying something they shouldn’t, and subsequently the CTs go wild when the mainstream media and the general public essentially ignore said comment. It is revisionist in its cherry-picking and de-contextualization or complete fabrication of historical events. Its anti-Semitism is rooted in a hatred for everything Israel and a conviction that Jews have infiltrated every level of government and all financial institutions. Its fascistic tendencies shine through in its disillusionment and distrust of democratic institutions, and further through its desire to violently overthrow them in order to restore possession of them to the people, and all this is tainted with a strong streak of ultranationalism, and, again, its inherent irrationality. Furthermore, many CTs’ assertions of a coming shift in global order—of nuclear war, depopulation programs, martial law, etc.—cannot be called out, as even though it never takes place, it is surely just around the corner. Alex Jones is notorious (as are radical Christian fundamentalist ‘prophets’) for making vague predictions all the time, so much so that when anything—and I mean anything—happens, he can claim he told you it was coming. You would have to put aside all the bullshit predictions he made that didn’t happen, but confirmation bias is a hell of a drug. Any attempt to reason with a CT on an event like 9/11 is, depending on how far down the rabbit hole they’ve gone, likely a waste of time. Regardless of what points you put forth, whether grounded in logic in reason or supported by sources, the CT can, at the very least, dismiss your arguments by informing you that you are too conditioned in your way of thinking to be able to grasp the gravity of the situation, or will repeat certain claims as undeniable truths, as mantras only the blind would disagree with. At first, though, the CT will inundate his opponent with a barrage of links to websites which seemingly support his stance of a government plot to destroy the Twin Towers based on random archival data or completely unrelated tidbits that may or may not be true, or of scientific studies that purport to conclude that the towers could not have fallen from the planes’ impact alone without assistance, or of completely fabricated information or quotes from unreliable individuals. Whereas a rational individual could be swayed to believe 9/11 was an inside job were reliable and substantial evidence available, the CT has already committed to an answer and will not back down. This is perhaps the worst symptom of conspiracy theorism.
In opposition to the scientific method, CTs begin with a conclusion and work backwards, looking for ‘evidence’ that will support their argument and ignoring anything to the contrary, or responding to it as propaganda, inaccurate, etc. In doing this, the CT creates a self-supporting and circular thesis with its own internal logic. Usually, though, when exposed to outside logic, the theory falls apart simply by reason alone. If not, the argument can then be readily disproven by reliable reports from reliable sources—though predictably, the CT will assert said sources are not reliable. This is why the echo chamber of the internet, which seems to spawn newer and kookier conspiracy-minded websites every day posing as news sources, is so vital to the life force of conspiracy theorism. Conspiracy websites will link to other conspiracy websites, who in turn link right back to the original conspiracy website. In the light of day, the theories of power put forth would be discredited almost instantaneously, yet within the bowels of the internet, like-minded individuals can congratulate each other on their faux-discoveries and pseudo-intellectual arguments in a perpetual circlejerk.
Most amazing is that many CTs do not see that the media they absorb functions the same way as—and often worse than—the media they condemn. Inforwars, for example, promotes outrageous and sensationalized stories, and in return gets page clicks, which results in higher viewership, which results in higher advertising revenues, and it either never occurs to them that Alex Jones is a multi-millionaire media personality baiting suckers with phony subversive ‘news,’ or they attribute his success to a free market which they alternately decry as rigged. Glenn Beck was silly enough to spend time on his radio show ranting about how he couldn’t disprove the existence of FEMA concentration camps. Of course, he also couldn’t prove that they exist, and never mind that the burden was never on him (or anyone else, for that matter) to disprove their existence. Conspiracy media has an inherent bias: everything is conspiracy, nothing is accidental. No event in modern history is caused by individuals acting with each other and in accordance with their beliefs or wants; there are no complex, social phenomena that would require the work of historians, sociologists, and political theorists to explain. Instead, it is merely the result of social engineering by the elites. Even miniscule events such as the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting was not the doing of a mentally ill young man, but instead clandestine government agents whose actions will be used to introduced gun restriction legislation.
We can also recognize contradictions in conspiracy theorism. CTs pride themselves on being open-minded, but anyone who listens to a conspiracy theorist radio program can attest that dissenting voices are dismissed outright and verbally abused. A good deal are unwilling to consider for a fraction of a second an opinion differing from their own, and why should they? Above all, they are the ones who have ‘the truth,’ and those disagreeing with ‘the truth’ are lemmings who need not be addressed. It’s not dissimilar to the way internet atheists believe they’ve solved one of life’s greatest mysteries merely because they found a few inconsistencies in a purportedly holy book, and thus are vindicated in mocking anyone with any spiritual belief. For a more concrete example, many CTs are convinced that global warming is a hoax, that scientists the world over are lying for their own gain or are being coerced by elite powers, and that it is being peddled by the government so as to implement a carbon tax. But also ingrained in CT ideology is distrust in corporations. This can be shown in the belief that oil companies helped engineer plans to invade various countries and undermine governments in the Middle East. But therein lies the contradiction. CTs assert global warming is a hoax and that the government uses it to try and bring about a carbon tax, yet the largest forces opposing the existence or the extent of global warming are oil companies and right-wing politicians. Using the logic of CTs, what does the government gain from attempting to pursue alternative forms of energy when they are supposedly in bed with corporations? And don’t they find it curious that the industry that pours millions into climate change denial is the industry that stands the most to lose should anything be done to address it?
Another tactic of the CT is to find (or create) small inconsistencies in media coverage or official reports. 9/11 is the perfect candidate for this. It is out of the question to consider that the 9/11 attacks was an event that occurred in the natural world with seemingly infinite variables, an event that may be all but impossible to reproduce, even with computer models, and that a result that seemingly breaks the laws of physics (which, along with civil and mechanical engineering, they learned by spending some time on the internet) is not unexpected, especially when scientists in well-equipped laboratories under controlled conditions constantly produce results that also seemingly break the laws of physics. Sometimes in the world there are things we cannot understand; that’s part of the wonderful mystery of our experience on Earth. But remember, the CT cannot allow such an explanation; there are no phenomena, there are no unexplained happenings, nothing is random. Everything is planned, all is calculated. Chance does not exist.
Yet another great scheme of CTs is to encourage others to research the information themselves. When I saw The Obama Deception, I was struck by how often Alex Jones and his talking heads instructed me not to take their word for it, but to go out and confirm the evidence. And I did, or at least as much as I could, and it’s precisely because I looked for myself that I threw out nearly everything Jones had to say other than that Obama is President—either there was no evidence to support what he’d claimed, or the evidence he’d presented was radically skewed in regards to its original context. So this urging to ‘check the evidence’ isn’t an actual challenge to the viewer—for if the viewer had any poise at all he’d compose himself until he could confirm the outrageous allegations Jones and company spew—but rather a way to instill trust. Considering that they claim no partisan bias, purport to be opposed to mainstream media, and are convincing in their attack on easy targets, why would they lie? What do they have to gain from it?
But I digress. My fascination with conspiracy theorists isn’t related solely to the way they gather and present ‘evidence,’ but rather their complete denial of reality and the forces that push them there. I haven’t seen any demographics on CTs, but I wouldn’t have a hard time believing that many mild CTs are high schoolers or university students (or drop-outs), casually engaging in conspiracy theories they see on Facebook, taking a picture with a caption in all caps with no source at face value. These are, however, just impressionable kids, and many of them, upon going to university, grow out of that naiveté. But what about the true enthusiasts? The ones who spend at least an hour a day reading, researching, compiling, and remembering disinformation? The ones who believe that they are ‘in the know’ while the rest of us remain ‘sheeple’?
The vast majority of CTs are, in my uneducated opinion, physically harmless, despite their constant calls for revolution. It takes a lot for a normal person to feel they’ve been pushed so far back against the wall that their only option is to react violently. The few examples that we’ve seen within the past few years were acts committed by those who were mentally unstable. Even the folks at Cliven Bundy’s ranch weren’t so insane that they would instigate a firefight with government officials. But CTs still pose a risk to society, one that traditionally has been very damaging and has harbored terrible results. Because CTs, like fundamentalist Christians, are obsessed with spreading their word, they draw more and more people into their sphere of influence. As a result, there are more and more people who have less and less faith in our democratic institutions. This is not hard to understand, but the resignation that control is in the hands of a rich few and that elections are a magnificent farce, an illusion of choice, and that the only way to subvert this system is by standing in (violent) solidarity and staging a revolution is, to me, not constructive at all. Not only that, but conspiracy theories distract people from far more pressing issues. If one concerns oneself with obsessively researching the JFK assassination or the 9/11 attacks in an attempt to prove they were inside jobs, attention is drawn away from issues like nuclear proliferation, a very real and documented threat that could lead to the annihilation of life on earth. Conversely, they can drive people to be more sympathetic to institutions that do need reforming. Because the CT is a constant alarmist, and because everything is further evidence of the end of the world which, they can assure us, is just around the corner, it can be wearying and weathering for anyone with a head on his shoulders. In turn, this could (and really, I stress could) lead someone to be more dismissive of the NSA revelations with responses that ‘the government isn’t spying on you.’ Regardless, their brand of political activism is not only intellectually limited, but never goes beyond posting on forums, regurgitating MS Paint-created talking points on Facebook, or standing outside the latest Bilderberg meeting with a sign and a loudspeaker.
But CTs do have real-world effects. Such a strand can be seen in the anti-vaccination movement. Being propelled into the mainstream by The View talking head Jenny McCarthy, people across the country latched on to the idea that vaccines cause autism, even though there is no evidence to support the claim. They consistently call on a disproven study peddled by a hack over twenty years ago, and this skepticism of vaccines has spiraled into a condemnation of pharmaceutical companies in general, who are seen as nothing but faceless companies creating drugs to sedate the population and keep them from finding real cures to their ailments. With reports of outbreaks of easily preventable diseases like mumps popping up in clusters across the country, you have to wonder what triggers otherwise rational people to buy into loony ideas. Maybe it’s because McCarthy can appeal to people as a mother, in a calm tone, as someone who has had something taken from her, that so many took her seriously. It makes me wonder whether more would give Alex Jones the time of day if he didn’t present everything as a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic and instead engaged people in a respectful, confident way. How many might be drawn into this alternate dimension were Jones not a raving madman?
And so this may be the most disturbing quality of the CT—his building of and residing in a completely alternate reality, one schizophrenic, divorced from reason, reactionary, absurd. The established logic is one impenetrable to reason, instead posing as such. It is a symptom of the digital age, where disinformation flies by so fast that young, impressionable minds weary of the system do not attempt to properly digest the Facebook photos claiming conspiracy every which way, a problem we face in a world where it’s much easier and nicer to think about big, complicated issues for thirty seconds rather than thirty minutes. But most of all, conspiracy theorism does nothing more than to boost the ego of the believer, to see himself as superior and more intelligent than those around him. It removes his responsibility to be politically or socially active in any way, to pursue avenues to create the kinds of changes he’d like to see in the world. Why would he? Everything is controlled, anyway. There is nothing we can do. There is no hope.
Really, though, I write this not to take a giant shit on those of a conspiratorial persuasion, but rather to vent my concern for these individuals, because they are, like you and me, humans. And though I don’t know how to make someone committed to a conspiratorial view shift his perspective (and I’m sure he wonder the same about me), I feel it’s best to at least hear them out, at least for as long as you can, trying to have a civil exchange. At the very least, we have one thing in common: there is too much power in the hands of too few, and the scales must be tipped if any of us hopes for a future of greater freedom.