Sunstein described conspiracists as being caught up in what he called “informational cascades,” in which a person accepts an explanation for an event when people he trusts offer up a conclusion with a high degree of confidence, even if they’re only speculating. Initial speculation “can start a process by which a number of people are led to participate in a cascade, accepting a conspiracy theory whose factual foundations are fragile.”
In this way, false information, augmented by fancy editing and music and narrated with authority, can travel fast, taking on greater and greater credibility the more it is linked to and e-mailed and posted by like-minded and trusted sources. “The conspiracy theory is initially accepted by people with low thresholds for its acceptance,” Sunstein’s paper argues. “Sometimes the informational pressure builds, to the point where many people, with somewhat higher thresholds, begin to accept the theory too.”
In a sense, Loughner, in his quest for answers to his own psychic confusion, was a person with a low threshold for acceptance, and he found himself buffeted by information cascades on the Internet, bouncing from political conspiracies to obscure language theories, a psychologically precarious man unable to distinguish fact from fiction.
To which Jones responded with a new cascade, interpreting Loughner’s actions as evidence of government mind control in action. “Well, see, that’s the problem with a question like this, is there’s so much evidence to it,” he says, rattling off what he considers proof that most of the major political assassins and domestic terrorists of the past 30 years were under mind control. “There’s encyclopedic amounts of evidence.”
Sunstein’s paper was roundly attacked, mainly because he proposed ways to deal with conspiracies that were academically and politically tone-deaf, like covert infiltration of conspiracy groups and collaborating with third parties armed with counterinformation.
Jones, in keeping with Sunstein’s warning that “efforts to rebut conspiracy theories also legitimate them,” pointed to it as proof that the government was trying to control people’s minds. But Jones wasn’t the only one who took umbrage: Glenn Greenwald, the liberal Salon columnist, argued that some of the most destructive conspiracy theories “emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. government itself, along with its elite media defenders.”
In the new media universe, where Jones and Greenwald (and Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh) are virtual allies in their distrust of institutional authority and in fact feed on it, a wormhole has opened from the most far-flung and seemingly insane corners to the precincts where most of us live—and it doesn’t seem likely to close anytime soon.
On a large TV screen behind Jones, part of his new set design for his webcast, are rotating images of Charlie Sheen, Egyptian protesters, Ron Paul, an ad for Police State 4, and Julian Assange.
Assange, the poster boy for the idea of government transparency, shares with Jones the belief that the powers that be are an elite cabal oppressing the masses. In a 2006 essay, Assange wrote, “We see conspiratorial interactions among the political elite not merely for preferment or favor within the regime, but as the primary planning methodology behind maintaining or strengthening authoritarian power.”
Both men view themselves as antidotes to secrecy. If all the information comes out, they maintain, the conspiracy will be proved; ipso facto, it will be eliminated and the righteous will be victorious, with Assange and Jones as insurgent heroes. As Jones says to his listeners: “If you are receiving this transmission—You! Are! The resistance!”
It’s an archetypal story, right out of Joseph Campbell or Star Wars. And some of it is even true: The events in the Middle East, for instance, were in part fanned by the release of WikiLeaks documents showing their leaders enriching themselves while suppressing their people. And open frameworks of information, like Facebook and Twitter, acted as pirate alternatives to state-run TV and newspapers. In closed political systems, conspiracies are the norm, often fomented by the governments themselves.
But the conspiracy market is so crowded now that real conspiracy may be harder than ever to spot. Jones, far from accepting the WikiLeaks documents literally, sees Assange as part of the conspiracy. And Assange sees people like Jones as adversaries. “I’m constantly annoyed that people are distracted by false conspiracies such as 9/11,” he has said, “when all around we provide evidence of real conspiracies, for war or mass financial fraud.”
I often wondered, talking to Jones, if he really believed this shtick. When I press him about the mouse-pox scenario—I mean, c’mon—his voice rises to radio-host volume while he insists that these “supertechnologies of genetic engineering … will make 1,000 Chernobyls look like child’s play.”