Why I haven’t given up on conspiracy theoristsMar 15, 2022
None of this has come out of the blue. It has coincided with the rise of neoliberal capitalism which, among other things, has encouraged hyper individualism, greater competition, social disconnection, greed and selfishness.
Things seem to have settled down somewhat in the northern NSW town of Mullumbimby – or they had done shortly before the recent epic floods. For a few weeks last year, ‘Mullum’ as it is affectionally known, was the focus of global attention as the ordained antivax capital of Australia.
Now that the virus has torn through the community, resulting in a few deaths and overwhelming the area’s hospital, there seems to be a different public mood – one of quiet acceptance. The worst has happened. It’s now time to move on. Mask wearing has waned to the point of nonexistence and the town’s denizens are once again out and about in cafes, pubs and restaurants. No shadow lockdown here.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. Not so long ago there was bickering aplenty over the efficacy of vaccinations and mask-wearing and the viral loads being spread by all and sundry. There were also squabbles over the origins of the virus and the very existence of the pandemic, and whether Bill Gates, reptilians and the deep state were involved in a vast global conspiracy. Some local shop keepers banned vaccinated customers, others encouraged the unvaxed to enter, and one café took to blasting out anti-vax propaganda rather than music. I witnessed pushing and shoving in supermarkets aisles as customers argued over masks. I got in on the act too, telling one Jesus lookalike to “get a life” as he stared at me maskless in the local IGA. “Fuck you” he snarled. Definitely not Jesus.
It’s certainly been a rough two years. Friendships have fractured and families torn apart. But the fissures and fractures were there long before the pandemic. Mullum has never been the entirely close and cohesive community that some people imagined. Tensions were there when Trump got elected in 2016, and when QAnon, Pizzagate and anti-Clinton hysteria took hold. They were there too when some locals accessed anonymous imageboards, enabling them to speak the unspeakable and say the unsayable. And conspiracy theories of the more florid kind have always been a feature of the town’s cultural life.
The gathering quantum of such unvetted discourse has had tangible effects in little Mullum – and well beyond. Its most shocking manifestation occurred in the storming of the US Capital Building on January 6th, and in the personal attacks on anyone who dared oppose the puerile misinformation peddled on sites like 4Chan, Reddit and 8Kun.
Taking on the online sages and keyboard activists is indeed risky. Penetrate this often dark, troubled world and you soon discover something very important: that there’s no persuading the unpersuadable. Take the case of Edgar Maddison Welch, a middle-aged QAnon supporter from North Carolina who, one sunny day in 2017, drove all the way to Washington DC to release children supposedly imprisoned in the basement of a popular downtown pizzeria. Welch was part of an online tribe convinced that there was a dungeon under the Comet Ping Pong family restaurant where children were tortured and abused by a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles.
So off he went, armed with a semi-automatic, handgun and knives. He strolled into the pizzeria primed for action, only to discover that the door to the fictive dungeon led to a storage cupboard full of plates, cups and tea towels. Dazed and confused, Welch placed his weapons on a beer barrel, walked out and was promptly arrested by the amassed police. Within days, customers returned to the restaurant, and Welch faced court. He now languishes in prison, ironically inflicting harm on his own children through his enforced absence.
None of this, however, could dissuade the faithful. Via various online platforms they insisted that Welch was a goofy stooge/plant of the deep state and that the attempted rescue was a ruse aimed at deflecting attention from ongoing child abductions. Police statements, investigative reports and fruitless searches by all and sundry failed to dent the delusionary belief that children were being abused in a non-existent dungeon.
As Australian journalist Van Badham points out in QAnon and on: A Short and Shocking History of Internet Conspiracy Cults, Welch’s QAnon-inspired actions were triggered by the toxic froth whipped up in the vortex of anonymous chatrooms. It made no difference that everything pointed to the fact that Pizzagate was a delusion. What mattered was that a certain version of reality had been concocted and that something – anything – had to be done to bring down the evildoers. It was a kind of orchestrated hysteria spinning in a self-perpetuating belief system.
Trump’s former campaign loyalist and adviser, “sloppy” Steve Bannon saw the potential presented by such messaging platforms. There were thousands of lonely, angry and impressionable (largely) young men, noses to screens, tapping away on their computers in dimly lit backrooms. They were waiting for a redemptive leader. And they wanted action. Children needed be rescued, and America saved. It was all a matter of time.
The narratives peddled by QAnon fused with other activist agendas whose ultimate aim was the overthrow of the existing corrupt, evil system. The Clintons, banksters, Jews, socialists, corrupt billionaires and countless others were targeted. The end game was disruption and overthrow. As noted in a BBC podcast, The Coming Storm, it became clear that there was a direct causal link between the frenzied allegations aired in various digital chambers and the insurrection of January 6, an event that marked a turning point in American political history – with far-reaching consequences for the rest of us.
Over the past year or so I’ve talked to a lot of people in Mullum and elsewhere who entertain the most bizarre and unsubstantiated ‘theories’ circulating on the net. I’ve read a lot of literature too which tries to make sense of all this. For someone like me, unaccustomed to the more sinister sides of the internet, what I found was deeply shocking – more so after reading Van Badham’s book. I realised how out of touch I was with what’s going on across cybersphere and how this is percolating into almost every quarter of the body politic
The people I spoke to were not the sort to break into public buildings or to participate in violent protests, but they nonetheless share many of the beliefs of those who do. Yet the more I listened, the more I realised that the frustrations of those we might dismiss as deranged were not all that different from many of my own concerns. It follows therefore, that we shouldn’t leap too readily to condemnation or ridicule, however tempting that might be. Banishing and humiliating people only reinforces their beliefs. A better way might be to understand the complex antecedents of these beliefs, and to inquire into what each of us holds in common – this can often be surprising, and illuminating.
What’s clear, I think, is that we’re all getting more anxious and worried about the state of the world. That’s almost a given. The list of crises is long and getting longer – the climate emergency, destruction of biodiversity, rising inequality, the erosion of democracy, greater indebtedness, the pandemic, more geo-political tensions, military conflict – and so forth. In a recent survey of thousands of citizens across Europe, the Munich Security Index 2022 noted a growing sense of collective unease. “Just like people can suffer from learned helplessness”, the report notes, “societies, too, may come to believe that they are unable to get a grip on the challenges they are facing …. Liberal democracies appear to feel particularly overwhelmed”.
Like many other nations, Australia is racked by such sentiments, exacerbated in no small measure by social disconnection and the absence of common purpose. We feel lost and cut adrift – stuck in the unknowing and in-between. There’s nothing to cling on to – or that’s what it can feel like. We yearn for a sense of control over our lives; for certainty and security.
Some people derive comfort from being part of an online tribe that’s united in a common cause against evildoers. They look for leaders who can articulate simple truths and solutions; messianic figures who seem to offer a lifeline, a way of making sense of what’s happening, and why. For the yearning and would-be leaders, stories of the apocalyptic present turn on crude binaries of good and evil, dark and light, victims and perpetrators, heroes and villains. Myths and fairy tales abound.
And yet, as I note below, there’s more to this than existential malaise. Although some may pick the wrong targets, the wrong leaders, the wrong narratives, what improbably unites many of us – the ‘sheepies’ and enlightened – is a deep distrust of the powerful. We know, for instance, that corporate heads, political leaders and other powerful agents often lie, cheat and obfuscate, and that the ‘mainstream media’ invariably fails to tell us the whole story. Nothing new about that. In the post-war period, however, mainly due to the Internet, it’s been harder for elites to bullshit their way out of trouble. Given all the exposures of corruption and maleficence, it’s not all that surprising that citizens across liberal democracies are increasingly suspicious of elites and democratic institutions. There’s doubt too over the mainstream media. It’s why more and more of us now seek answers in the counter opinions found in darkest corners of the net. For the lonely, isolated, disgruntled and angry who so often inhabit such places, the likes of Q are a God-send, turning the world of complexity into an age-old tale of demons, witches and bogeymen. Q is the consummate storyteller, conjuring florid stories that express our deepest suspicions and discontents. In this world of what amounts to make-believe, evidence is subsumed by the emotionally fuelled belief that someone or something is ultimately responsible for our collective suffering.
Looking back over recent decades, it’s clear that the internet has created the conditions for the emergence of new forms of political activism. But none of this has come out of the blue. It has coincided with the rise of neoliberal capitalism which, among other things, has encouraged hyper individualism, greater competition, social disconnection, greed and selfishness. The sense of the collective, of the common good and purpose, have slowly but steadily been replaced by what Anne Manne describes as a ‘new culture of narcissism’. The more isolated and disconnected people become, and the greater the degree of economic inequality and social injustice, the more anonymous sites appeal to the growing ranks of the disaffected. It gives them a voice; a place to vent their fury against ill-defined, nefarious entities. The upshot is that in positing the enemy as a Satanic cabal or deep state and the like, the real culprits – those responsible for increased social suffering – remain at large. That’s the irony of internet-inspired radicalism of this sort – ultimately, it reinforces rather than challenges the existing order.
This became clear after protesters broke into the Capital Building on 6 January: once in there, in the wake of death and destruction, they had no coherent plan, no sense of what was to follow – an insurrection minus the blueprint. In no time at all, they shrugged their shoulders and were escorted out of the building. The same might be said of the various ‘freedom’ protesters whose collective opposition to mandates and lockdowns have tended to morph into a more generalised opposition to power and authority – evidenced in the growing presence of sovereignty movement members. But again, there is no clear sense of what was to follow the dismantling of the current order. They didn’t have a clue.
What these and other opposition movements reveal is a deep distrust of power and authority that has been incubating for many years, finding expression most vocally and perhaps dangerously, in chat rooms on the internet. Engaging with such tribalism is risky but, as author of Facts and Other Lies: Welcome to the Disinformation Age, Ed Coper argues, we shouldn’t turn our backs on those who subscribe to bad thinking. For philosopher Quassim Cassam, this means not simply questioning florid assertions but also pointing out the company that its adherents keep. It also means, according to Australian academic Aidan Ricketts, exercising compassion for those who, like the rest of us, are worried about what’s occurring in the world, and who feel politically alienated and socially disconnected. Being present, listening to underlying grievances, providing reflective spaces and drawing attention to structural conditions and power relations can also help shift consciousness.
All this takes time, and a lot of patience. This is why, after some reflection, I decided against getting into verbal stoushes with my conspiracy theory acquaintances in Mullumbimby. Instead, I continue, as best I can, listening and talking to them. So far, the effort has been worth it. I’ve discovered areas of common interest. Not that I’ve managed to change anyone’s mind, but at least we’re not screaming at each other.