(Akim Reinhardt’s superb essay about the proliferation of conspiracy theories online was published at 3 Quarks Daily on . Reprinted with permission.)
As an undergraduate History major, I reluctantly dug up a halfway natural science class to fulfill my college’s general education requirement. It was called Psychology as a Natural Science. However, the massive textbook assigned to us turned out to be chock full of interesting tidbits ranging from optical illusions to odd tales. One of the oddest was the story of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde: three men who each fervently believed he was Jesus Christ. The three originally did not know each other, but a social psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought them together for two years in an Ypsilanti, Michigan mental hospital to experiment on them. He later wrote a book titled The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.
Rokeach hypothesized that since Jesus exists by the same code that the Immortals in Highlander later stated as “There can only be one,” these three men might be cured of their delusions when confronted with others who insisted likewise. Of course, he was very wrong. Much like Highlander’s Immortals, they simply fell into conflict. When faced with the others’ unrelenting presence, each dug their heels in and doubled down on their delusions. Even Rokeach’s jaw-dropping manipulations, which included a string of outrageous lies and elaborate fabrications, could not dissuade them.
I’ve recently been pondering this infamous tale of poorly conceived psychological experimentation because in it I see reflections of problems currently plaguing America. Except instead of being thrown together in confinement, people with similar mental disorders are now finding each other on their own. And instead of a psychological professional at least trying (albeit in a highly flawed manner) to cure them, the medium of connection is the largely unregulated and even more manipulative internet. And, finally, instead of insisting there can only be one, mentally ill people are now reinforcing and reduplicating each other’s delusions.
Of course you don’t have to be mentally ill to believe most of the world wide web’s whack-a-doo conspiracy theories. One need merely be stupid or gullible, or in most cases perhaps, just a bit desperate. Take for example the entirely discredited “theory” that childhood vaccines cause autism. It is very understandable that the trauma of conceiving and parenting a severely autistic child would break someone just a little bit, to the point that they demand an explanation that satisfies them more than what we currently know about autism’s causes, which is very little. For some, “very little” just won’t do. Furthermore, the little we do know, including that genetics might be a factor, may contribute to a sense of misplaced guilt that some simply cannot shoulder, leading them to grasp at whatever else is out there. And what’s out there is an internet-fueled story about vaccines.
Funnel it through the internet, and suddenly it’s the conspiracy theory that’s infectious, spreading from the desperate to the naive. By 2011, 18% of Americans believed this incredibly dangerous hooey. That’s roughly 50 million people.
Likewise, you don’t have to be mentally ill to sincerely believe that the Earth is flat, that the Holocaust is a hoax, that the moon landing was faked, that Princess Diana was murdered, that 9-11 was an inside job, or that JFK was killed by the CIA or the Mafia or the Cubans. You might very well be mentally ill. But you don’t have to be.
However, as we move up the ladder to more and more ludicrous internet conspiracy theories, it begins to seem as if some sort of mental illness is a prerequisite for full faith. That is not a professional assertion. Psychology as a Natural Science was a fun course, but not life changing. I stuck with my major and became a Historian, not a mental health professional, and I respect professional boundaries. But just as any reasonable person can make lay interpretations about the past, any reasonable person can conclude that your brain must not be working properly if you sincerely believe that the world’s leading politicians, business leaders, and artists are actually blood-sucking Lizard People from outer space responsible for the Holocaust and 9-11, and hell bent on ruling the world and enslaving humanity.
The appropriate lay word here would be “crazy.” That’s what I said to my partner about a new friend who began sending her Lizard People conspiracy theory emails. Not as a joke, which is what my partner first assumed. But as educational material. As in, this is real. “Your new friend is crazy,” I told her. “Stop hanging out with her.” She did. Yet the emails about Lizard People and other lunacy continued. So she blocked her.
But of course it’s not so simple. At least not for us as a society. This isn’t about just three avatars of Christ locked up in an Ypsilanti hospital, with any other people clinging to the same delusion scattered and isolated across the country. There are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions who believe either in Lizard People or other outrageous conspiracies. And they are not scattered. They are not isolated. They are finding each through the internet, where they reinforce and expand their delusions and recruit new believers, just as this woman attempted to recruit my partner. They are voting. They are running for office. They are serving in Congress. They were among those who stormed the Capitol at the president’s urging, and attempted to violently overturn a national election.
It wasn’t always this way, even when it was.
Here in the United States, Boomers and Gen Xers remember the “newspapers” one used to find for sale at the supermarket checkout aisle. Classic impulse buys, they were pure frivolity that no right-thinking person would put into their basket while hunting for food to sustain yourself and your family. Rather, you might buy it on a lark now that the brunt of the chore is done, as you unload your items onto the conveyor belt and begin to realize you’re actually under your budget. Why not buy something silly like watermelon flavored diet breath mints? Or a cheap, little toy your kid is wound up about? Or a some celebrity gossip rag? Or better yet, some absolutely ridiculous piece of trash like the Sun or Weekly World News, with their mix of weird-but-true stories, and completely fabricated yarns.
Inside their pages you would find the reliable, stock folk tales, such as Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster. Then there was the in-house taradiddle, such as explorers finding The Garden of Eden; or Bat Boy, the half-bat, half-human child living in a West Virginia Cave; or various space aliens, including one named P’lod who was having an affair with Hilary Clinton. Who would actually believe such fatuousness?
Just about everyone knew these were jokes, and those who were gullible enough to believe them generally kept quiet about it. After all, when everyone around you says this is a joke, you might just give up on it. Or at least keep it to yourself rather than face the inevitable mockery.
However, one of these tongue-in-cheek absurdities struck a chord. When the WWN ran a story claiming that the dearly departed, gone-far-too-young Elvis Presley was still alive, it resonated with readers. It must have been something about Elvis; similar stories about JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Hank Williams Sr., and Adolph Hitler still being alive didn’t generate anywhere near the same buzz. But the Elvis story took off. People laughed. Soon it was a running joke for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and other comedians. A pre-web meme had been born.
For most people, the notion of a gray-haired Elvis sneaking in and out of movie theaters was so preposterous that it became something funny to spoof. Yet some people insisted it was true. When the story fist came out, WWN offices, much to their surprise and delight, fielded dozens of phone calls from people wanting to know more. Some were willing to believe that Elvis wasn’t really dead after all.
Given that the entire Christian religion, with its two and a half billion believers, is predicated on more or less the same thing, I guess it’s understandable.
No, I did not just say that every theistic religious adherent is mentally ill. The actual nature “mental illness” as a socially constructed category is for another time. Rather, the point is that back in the late 20th century, while some people could still fall for a brand new shenanigan such as Elvis is alive!, the popular purveyors of poppycock were not powerful enough to spread genuine conspiratorialism very far. Yes, there were some who believed Elvis was still alive, but their numbers were contained. Straight faced rags like the Weekly World News and the Sun could turnout only so many true believers because anyone seriously subscribing to their silliness still lived in a society that indulged these tales only to lampoon them. Either you were mocking or being mocked; and having nearly everyone mock you is a serious inhibitor.
But the internet is not just a few small publications available only at grocery checkout aisles. It is, for practical purposes, infinite, and nearly as omnipresent as one wants it to be. Worse yet perhaps, it is algorithmic. More and more of it is intentionally designed to find you, grip you, and draw you together with both, like minded people and manipulative bots coded to feed your frenzy. There are now fellow Christs from Ypsilanti everywhere, and countless Dr. Rokeaches, none of them manipulating you in pursuit of a cure but only to reinforce your misbeliefs so as to profit from them politically and/or economically.
The tide has turned. Instead of 99% of America mocking your outlandish beliefs, and perhaps no one you personally know agreeing with them, the internet connects believers and reinforces and spreads beliefs. Many people you know online, and even in person, now agree with you completely. Under these circumstances, the conspiracies become infectious, spreading from those who are susceptible because of mental illness to those who get caught up in the craze, much like the roughly 50 million Americans who eventually believed, casually or deeply, in the autism vaccine conspiracy. At least that one had an air of faux science about it. Now we’re nearly overrun by far fetched lunacy.