conspiracy theories

Even Conspiracy Theories Have Gotten Dumber, a New Book Shows

Photo: Rick Loomis/Getty Images

Maybe Americans are obsessed with conspiracy theories because our nation itself was forged in one. In the turbulent run-up to and aftermath of the Declaration of Independence, the word on the streets — and in the pamphlets — of the colonies was not that the Crown had instituted bad or unfair policies, but rather that everything was part of a master plan to enslave the States, full stop.

“Historians have uncovered nearly one hundred resolutions urging independence issued throughout 1776 by states and counties and towns, artisan and militia associations, and the provincial congresses of nine colonies,” write Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, a new book from Princeton University Press. “The tone, language, and form are consistent. In each, a narrative of self-defense against enslavement is built from fragmentary evidence. Each lists ‘abuses and usurpations’ adding up to a tyrannical plot.”

This conspiracy and the many, many others that have washed over Americans in the intervening centuries conform to a similar formula: Even when the underlying claims are false or verifiably nuts, the evidence for the conspiracies themselves is generally presented in a somewhat academic style, as facts supporting a thesis. Some conspiracy theories about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, for example, focus on the idea that the military-industrial complex was threatened by his policies and therefore decided he had to go. On the other end of the political spectrum, the once-mighty John Birch Society was founded in 1958 to fight what was seen as a massive Communist conspiracy to infiltrate American institutions. And some strains of 9/11 trutherism posit that dark forces within the government perpetrated the attacks — or faked them — as a pretext for waging profitable wars in the Middle East.

Then there are the conspiracy theories that turned out to be true: Big Tobacco really did conspire to cover up evidence of the harmful health effects of tobacco, as Big Opioid (embodied by the Sackler family) appears to have done more recently. The CIA really did dose unwitting experimental subjects with LSD. And on and on.

What these “traditional” conspiracy theories have in common, whether true or false, is that they portray what are actual internally consistent theories involving rational(ish) actors. These are not, however, the focus of Muirhead and Rosenbloom’s book, which homes in on a more recent and more dangerous phenomenon. The “new conspiracism,” as they call it, seeks not to lay out fully (or even half-) baked theories about who has engaged in what evil act, and why, but rather to spread a more knee-jerk and emotion-driven type of angry fear: Above all, it seeks to undermine both individuals and sources of authority by simply repeating endlessly, via the megaphone of social media, unhinged claims laminated in the thinnest patina of evidence. “Conspiracy theory is not new, of course,” Muirhead and Rosenblum write early on, “but conspiracism today introduces something new — conspiracy without the theory.”

As they explain:

There is no punctilious demand for proofs, no exhausting amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, no close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation. Instead, we have innuendo and verbal gesture: “A lot of people are saying …” Or we have bare assertion: “Rigged!” — a one-word exclamation that evokes fantastic schemes, sinister motives, and the awesome capacity to mobilize three million illegal voters to support Hillary Clinton for president. This is conspiracy theory without the theory.

The instances above point to one obvious catalyst, Donald Trump, along with the forces that made him president. If you look around, you won’t find, or won’t find much, actual theorizing about (for example) why one should believe a child-sex trafficking operation was being run with the help of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager out of a Northwest D.C. pizza shop, let alone for even more convoluted and nonsensical theories like the Storm (a.k.a. QAnon). “What validates the new conspiracism is not evidence but repetition,” argue Muirhead and Rosenblum. “When Trump tweeted the accusation that President Barack Obama had ordered the FBI to tap his phones in October before the 2016 election, no evidence of the charge was forthcoming. What mattered was not evidence but the number of retweets the president’s post would enjoy: the more retweets, the more credible the charge.”

Why do people spread this stuff? “Part of the appeal is performative aggression,” the authors write. “The new conspiracism delivers dark claims, though the fabrications are erratic, vague, and undeveloped — more angry assertion than revelatory narrative. For angry minds it offers the immediate gratification of lashing out, of throwing verbal stones.” Not a spotlight on a hidden truth, but rather a million algorithm-multiplied middle fingers. And at a time when America’s problems — inequality, polarization, political and wage stagnation — feel intractable, it makes perfect sense that people would be drawn to this sort of outlet for their frustration.

Photo: Princeton University Press

The new conspiracism is more than capable of spreading on its own, but it doesn’t help that even some political elites who surely know better haven’t exactly been forthright in debunking conspiracy theories lately. “I’m all for vaccines, but I’m also for freedom,” said Senator Rand Paul, a physician, during a 2015 Republican debate, when asked about the false link between vaccines and autism. That same year, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas actually helped to spread the bizarre Jade Helm conspiracy theory. And plenty of elected Republican officials either helped spread birtherism or gave wishy-washy answers when asked about it. Many of these politicians have clearly calculated that their policies and campaigns might benefit from their staying neutral at best on the veracity of certain conspiracist claims.

The three examples above can be seen as traditional conspiracy theories (though I’d argue birtherism is a hybrid), but the cumulative effect of elites abdicating their core responsibility of sorting truth from fiction is a profound distrust of authority and institutions of any sort. The authors argue that that’s more or less the point of the new conspiracism: It’s fundamentally nihilistic. It seeks not to redress power imbalances or abuses but to undermine order itself. This isn’t Revolutionary-era conspiracy theorizing, whose ultimate aim was to push the colonies into a full military rebellion against the British, leading ideally to self-rule.

A Lot of People Are Saying is a really good introduction to a concept that deserves a lot more study and critique, and I’d recommend it to anyone disturbed by what’s going on. A few parts rang slightly thin or hollow to me, though. First, the authors argue that “while the Left participates in its share of classic conspiracy theories, it has not yet taken up the new conspiracism.” That this isn’t quite true; there are some parallels between left and right on this front.

Much of what we’re seeing on the right now is, in effect, the fruit of eight years of sustained insanity surrounding President Obama — birtherism, death panels, and so on. Something at least a little bit similar is going on in some corners of the left. It isn’t nearly at the same level, but the election of Trump has, in fact, melted some brains. Take, for example, a couple of Louise Mensch Tweets. There’s “EXCLUSIVE: Marshal of the Supreme Court spoke to Trump over ‘case of impeachment,’” or “My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for @StevenKBannon. I am pro-life and take no pleasure in reporting this.” (That one tags Bannon, just as a friendly FYI — though the account is transparently not, in fact, run by Steve Bannon.)

These tweets, along with the output of of #resistance conspiracy theorists like Seth Abramson and Eric Garland, conform to the new conspiracism. I can’t discount the possibility that someone, somewhere, has actually laid out some “evidence” about the SCOTUS marshal and Trump, or about Bannon’s imminent capital charges, but it’s pretty clear that these conspiracy theories aren’t actual theories, but rather simply provocative rumors about a perceived enemy. That’s not to say that left-wing new conspiracism is anywhere near as pervasive as its right-wing counterpart, but rather that it exists, and that we can expect it to spread, in much the same way the right-wing strain did and in much the same way conspiracy theories in general spread, during times of panic and uncertainty on the left.

Second, I wish Muirhead and Rosenblum had something to say about internet trolls. The behavior of trolls tends to be downplayed or misunderstood when traditionally minded journalists and academics try to explain the online world, perhaps because it confounds so many social-scientific models of human behavior. But trolls are really important here. They love seeding new conspiracy theories and watching credulous normies spread them; in all likelihood, much of the heavy lifting of developing and spreading both Pizzagate and QAnon was done by trolls who know these theories to be false.

Finally, I think the authors put a little bit too much faith in the power of traditional norms to fix things:

Two responses mitigate and contain the corrosive consequences of the new conspiracism. First is enacting democracy: a strenuous adherence to the regular processes and forms of public decision-making. Democracy is “enacted” when officials explicitly draw attention to the importance of adhering to these norms and practices. The way to demystify governmental power is to make the process of legislation and adjudication legible.

In theory, sure: Making the levers of government easier to understand might foreclose theories of power that fill in those gaps of understanding. But are these unhinged conspiracy theories really spread because people are more mystified by how government works than they were before? This is America — no one knows how government works! There’s a slight risk here that Muirhead and Rosenblum are putting too much faith in the ability of big, top-down efforts to solve problems that are much more about human psychology and the online algorithms that exploit it.

Close readers may have noticed a missing M-word from my qualms about leaving the left out of the new-conspiracism discussion. In light of what now look like some underwhelming findings, doesn’t the theorizing about the Mueller report qualify as a form of the new conspiracism? I’d argue that it doesn’t. Setting aside the credibility question — remember that there was enough smoke here, enough strange interactions between Trump staffers and those with ties to the Russian government, to warrant a major investigation — the collusion conspiracy theory is actually quite vanilla. That is, it’s an internally coherent theory in which the Russians, preferring Trump to Clinton, sought to hurt her cause and help his, and in which the Trump campaign, preferring victory to defeat (and being too corrupt, too hapless, or both to care about the distinction between legal and illegal campaign activity), actively participated in the effort. It looks like this didn’t happen — though, of course, we haven’t seen the full report yet. But the proposition that it did is still a red-blooded American conspiracy theory, a worthy descendant of those that inspired the American Revolution.

That distinction is actually a sign that Muirhead and Rosenblum’s argument is tightly constructed and well defined: After reading A Lot of People Are Saying, I didn’t see the new conspiracism everywhere, like some sort of, well, addled conspiracist. Rather, it was pretty easy, I found, to distinguish the new conspiracism from its traditional variants, which will always be with us. Muirhead and Rosenblum have pointed out something genuinely new and disturbing, but in an appropriately careful, levelheaded way. Just one of many reasons this is a book worth reading, even if it doesn’t make for a particularly happy story.

Even Conspiracy Theories Have Gotten Worse, a New Book Shows