“The founding practice of conspiratorial thinking” writes Kathleen Stewart, “is the search for the missing plot.” When some piece of information is missing in our lives, whether it is the conversion ratio of cups to ounces or who shot JFK, there’s a good chance we’ll open up a browser window. And while most of us agree that there are eight ounces to every cup, far fewer (like, only 39 percent) think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Many who study the subject point to the mediation of the killing –The Zapruder film, the televised interviews and discussions about the assassination afterward—as one of the key elements of the conspiracy theory’s success. One might conclude that mediation and documentation cannot help but provide a fertile ground for conspiracy theory building.
Stewart goes so far as to say “The internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing, no place…” Just like a conspiracy theory you never get to the end of the Internet. Both are constantly unfolding with new information or a new arrangement of old facts. It is no surprise then, that with the ever-increasing saturation of our lives with digital networks that we are also awash in grotesque amalgamations of half-facts about vaccines, terrorist attacks, the birth and death of presidents, and the health of the planet. And, as the recently leaked documents about Facebook’s news operations demonstrate, it takes regular intervention to keep a network focused on professional reporting. Attention and truth-seeking are two very different animals.
The Internet might be a conspiracy theory but given the kind, size, and diversity of today’s conspiracy theories it is also worth asking a follow-up question: what is the Internet a conspiracy about? Is it a theory about the sinister inclinations of a powerful cabal? Or is it a derogatory tale about a scapegoated minority? Can it be both or neither? Stewart was writing in 1999, before the web got Social so she could not have known about the way 9/11 conspiracies flourished on the web and she may not have suspected our presidential candidates would make frequent use of conspiratorial content to drum up popular support. Someone else writing in 1999 got it right though. That someone was Joe Menosky and he wrote one of the best episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. Season 6, Episode 9 titled The Voyager Conspiracy.
In The Voyager Conspiracy Seven of Nine, a former Borg drone who can download and upload data like a computer but still has the reasoning capacities of a fleshy human brain, has decided to upload the ships’ logs into her mind. As a literal cyborg Seven can leverage the storage capacity of a computer with the analytic capabilities we (and even the Federation) have yet to build into an artificial intelligence. No time is spent explaining why anyone would want to do such a thing but perhaps the reason we need no explanation is the same reason anyone thought Siri would be a good idea.
The initial results of her experiment are great—Seven correctly deduces that photonic fleas have disrupted power flow to the sensor grid—but things go awry from there. She quickly starts making connections across disparate events that are “highly speculative” (to borrow a phrase from Vulcan Security Officer, Tuvok) but difficult to disprove. Seven accuses Captain Janeway of plotting to send a Federation invasion force into the Delta Quadrant but not before accusing First Officer Chakotay of plotting to mount a similar invasion against the Federation. The episode crescendos with Seven attempting to flee the ship out of fear that she is the subject of a third elaborate conspiracy to use her as a science experiment.
In the final act of the episode Seven reports that the technology “functioned within expected parameters. Unfortunately, I did not.” It is a simple, elegant way to describe humans’ relationship to their creations. Like a wish granted by a monkey paw, we over-estimate our ability to handle technologies’ fulfillment of our desires. Seven starts by solving problems, then starts to question the motivations of powerful people, and finally turns inward convinced that everyone is out to get her. The first action is useful for a hierarchical organization like a ship. The first two actions are useful in a democracy. This third and final stage is definitely anti-social, perhaps even pathological, and so it is easy to dismiss this self-centered perspective as anathema to any sort of political or social organization.
Psychologists have studied conspiracy for a long time and have come to a similar conclusion. Daniel Jolley [PDF] cites one study that showed being exposed to one conspiracy theory made respondents more susceptible to believing subsequent conspiracy theories and were “unaware of the change in their conspiracy endorsement.” After being exposed to conspiracy theory material participants in one study “were less likely to engage with politics, relative to those who were exposed to information refuting conspiracy theories. This effect was shown to be caused by an increase in feelings of political powerlessness.” Jolley also cites multiple studies that show no particular demographic seems to “reliably predict conspiracy beliefs”, which Jolley interprets to mean that “we are all susceptible to conspiracy theories, which may subsequently help explain why conspiracy theories have flourished. Conspiracy theories appear to be viral apathy.
Political apathy, however, is not the same as total social isolation. Michael Wood, after citing the same Stewart essay quoted above, notes that “research has shown that people who once were afraid to express their opinions openly are now free to gather with like-minded individuals on forums, blogs, and social media, developing opinion-based communities of a breadth and depth never seen before.” Conspiracy in the age of the Internet, according to Wood, has become increasingly vague because the power to debunk has risen alongside the power to question. Instead of describing a plot with an intended goal (e.g. The U.S. faked the moon landing to win the space race.) conspiracy theories describe vague yet menacing government agencies. The idea that the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the Sandy Hook shooting were both false flag operations populated by crisis actors is a good example of post-internet conspiracy. They are specific stories about vague anxieties that the government and other powerful organizations are antagonistic to your existence.
Jolley and Wood are missing something though. Actually quite a few things. Perhaps it is true that everyone is equally capable of believing a conspiracy theory but I suspect there are lots of structural concerns –race, class, and gender positionality just to name a few—that factor into which conspiracy any given person believes in or gets introduced to. For example, Pasek et al. [PDF] show that conservative-leaning white Americans are overwhelmingly more likely to believe that Barack Obama is a secret Kenyan Muslim. Reporting has also shown that it is largely well-educated, affluent parents that believe vaccines cause autism. Conspiracy theories are not, as Stewart claims, “all over the map: … right wing one moment and left-wing the next.” Or at least they aren’t anymore. As conspiracy theories have come into the mainstream they have made real changes to the world: preventable diseases, both biological and ideological, have broken out and they have a very particular political character.
It makes sense then, that recent political candidates have been greatly rewarded by not only citing conspiracy theories, but weaving them into a larger narrative of inequality brought about by elites beholden to foreign interests. The resulting story may seem ideologically confusing –rarely in American politics do we see a candidate defend social safety net programs while deriding illegal immigration—but it is populism, pure and simple.
Again, science fiction is instructive here. 9/11 is often treated as an inflection point for so many socio-political trends and conspiracy theories are no different. The recent X-Flies miniseries shows how the conspiracy theory terrain has shifted over the last 30 years. Whereas the original X-Files series (which ran from 1992 to 2002) cast the conspiracy theorist as a lone searcher for the truth, the reboot must account for a robust conspiratorial culture that has blossomed within populist political circles. “Since 9/11,” Skinner says in the first episode of the 10th season, “this country has taken a big turn in a very strange direction.”
When the original series launched public trust in government was at an all-time low of 18 percent. It went off the air amidst a potent combination of contract disputes and skyrocketing post-9/11 nationalism, but now we have come back to our senses and trust has fallen even lower. Except this new mini-series must deal with a very different conspiratorial terrain that is far more conservative and lucrative. One where the military, small businesses, and the police are the only institutions capable of garnering trust from over half of the population. Conspiracy among government elites is so expected and widely-believed that far-right media personalities not only have a big audience, they can build a successful business off of it. (Not to mention successful primary campaigns.)
The new X-Files perfectly mirrors Americans’ new relationship with political prominence, conspiracy, and governmental over-reach: Scully and Mulder find themselves making uneasy alliances where left and right means less than agitating a populist revolt against elites. The plot of the first and last episodes revolve around a conservative millionaire YouTube personality who wants to help them reveal The Truth but neither of the agents trust his motivations any more than they trust the elites within the FBI. It is a bargain many young leftists are considering themselves: compromise one’s deepest-held values and accept the offer to be brought back into the elite’s fold, or join with the conservative populist with whom you share a common enemy?
In considering the power of the Internet to spread conspiracy theories we have to take into account who is best poised to take advantage of widespread doubt. We have to remember that Seven cast a finger at authority first, but ultimately made it about herself. Such self-centered behavior can cause reactionary, anti-social behavior that easily maps onto open-ended, post-internet. Such vague anxieties are the proving ground for strong-man political campaigns. At the heart of conspiracy theories are disparities of power and any powerful person that promises to act on behalf of the people who “know the truth” can build an immensely successful campaign to extend that power. If the internet is a conspiracy theory, it is a mass of tangled, obscured lines of power that put the individual at the heart of the web. It is a theory that distorts the material relations of authority and constructs a truth that, ultimately, implicates everyone and no one. That truth is out there and to resist it, is futile.
David is on twitter: @da_banks