Anna Merlan has made a distinguished journalistic career out of covering conspiracy theories, particularly far-right ones, for Gizmodo Media; her book-length account of conspiratorial thinking, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, is a superb tour not just through the conspiracies that have taken hold in American public discourse, but also in the real, often traumatic conspiracies that give these false beliefs a terrible ring of plausibility.
Merlan’s thesis is that the “contagion” model of conspiracy thinking — the idea that some people are just so danged convincing that merely hearing them will make you a conspiracy theorist — is at best incomplete, and at worst, totally overblown.
After all, the arguments for the flat Earth, or anti-vax, or eugenics, have not gotten better since they emerged decades or even centuries ago, and to an objective ear, the people who advocate these ideas sound ridiculous.
Some people argue that the rise in conspiratorial thinking is about contagion, but that patient zero is the internet, where Big Tech’s almighty algorithms can use machine learning to systematically explore its targets’ cognitive defenses, finding and exploiting their weak spots and winning converts, with fully automated proselytizing tools that allow even the most fumbletongued conspiracy peddler to amass a following and found a cult.
This theory is supported by Big Tech’s own commercial communications: if you want to find testimonies to the devastating power of Big Tech’s persuasion tools, you need look no further than their own sales literature, in which they boast that potential advertisers can expect endless returns from their machine-learning mind control rays.
It’s weird that we’d believe these boasts, though. Big Tech, after all, is led by “morally bankrupt liars” whose every pronouncement about their labor practices, economic activity, tax planning, private data handling and political lobbying turn out to be bullshit — it would be pretty remarkable if the only time Big Tech told the truth was when they were trying to entice customers to given them money in exchange for access to their advertising products.
It’s indisputable that Big Tech’s nonconsensually assembled deep dossiers on billions of internet users are good for something, though, and that something is finding people based on whether they possess certain hard-to-find traits, like “people who are thinking of buying a refrigerator” or “people who have nonbinary gender identities” or “people who are fed up and ready to get involved with #BlackLivesMatter” or “people who want to carry tiki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, chanting ‘Jews will not replace us.'”
This people-finding capacity is at the heart of the rise in conspiracism. It’s what lets recommendation algorithms find people who are susceptible to videos about eugenics or the flat Earth, and it’s what lets people who find these ideas compelling locate similar people to form groups with; groups that give them a sense of belonging, community and capacity for action.
Which leaves us with the question: why are so many people so vulnerable to conspiracism? What are the traits that give rise to a susceptibility to believe in conspiracy theories?
Merlan’s answer echoes much of the consensus among psychologists: conspiracy is trauma’s traveling companion. People who have encountered situations in which real conspiracies have harmed them or the people they love find it easy to believe that other conspiracies are at the root of harms they are living through now.
Take the persistent belief that the flooding in New Orleans’s Black neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina was caused by dynamiting the levees in order to spare white neighborhoods from flooding. This did not happen, but in 1927, the Black homes of Tupelo, Mississippi were wiped off the map when the authorities decided to blow the levees in order to spare the richer, whiter homes that were at risk from the floodwaters. Both floods followed a common pattern (right down to the mass expropriation of Black homes after the floodwaters receded).
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 isn’t a conspiracy theory, it’s just a conspiracy. The fact that the white establishment was willing to conspire to drown and rob Black people in the region is what made the theory that perhaps it had happened again in New Orleans plausible.
We are living through a moment in which official truth-seeking exercises are being remade as auctions in which the wealthy bid to decide what the official truth will be, from the safety of opioids to the urgency of climate change. Which is another way of saying that we are living through not just an age of conspiratorial thinking, but also of actual conspiracies, often conspiracies that are so bold that the conspirators are barely phoning in their cover stories.
Merlan has spent time embedded in conspiracy communities of all stripes, from daffy New Agers to vicious white nationalists, and her keen anthropological analysis of the dynamics of these communities and the personalities within them foregrounds the historical precedents that conspiracists rely upon in shoring up their own beliefs. Scratch a vaccine denier, find someone who’ll tell you about ghastly pharma coverups and experiments from Tuskegee to the opioid epidemic. Ufologists can go chapter-and-verse on real military/aerospace coverups and conspiracies (see also: Pizzagaters driven to frenzy by Jeffrey Epstein revelations).
From Watergate and Iran-Contra to MK ULTRA and Cointelpro, the US establishment has shown itself time and again willing to engage in coverups and palace intrigue. The “Deep State” isn’t what the far-right imagines it to be, but it does exist, in the form of career civil servants and prominent government contractors who can and do exert pressure to maintain the status quo for good and ill, from keeping Guantanamo Bay open to frustrating the most unhinged plans of Trump and his cabinet.
Inequality is a driver of conspiracy, because with unequal distributions of money come unequal distributions of power, and thus corruption, self-dealing, and, naturally enough, cover-ups to keep the boat from rocking too much.
Countering incorrect conspiratorial beliefs is important and urgent work, but it is purely reactive — ideological fire-fighting. The case that Merlan forcefully builds in her outsanding book is that we need fire-prevention, not just fire-fighting: we need to change the conditions that prime people to believe conspiracies, which is to say, we need to root out corruption and impunity and rebalance the inequality that gives rise to them, otherwise, the fires will become too numerous to extinguish.
Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power [Anna Merlan/Metropolitan Books]
I’m in the midst of couple of weeks’ worth of lectures, public events and teaching, and you can catch me in Toronto (for Word on the Street, Seeding Utopias and Resisting Dystopias and 6 Degrees); Newry, ME (Maine Library Association) and Portland, ME (in conversation with James Patrick Kelly).
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