How Conspiracy Became Culture (Part 1)

How did we get here?

There’s been a lot of interesting volatility for someone who works for a living (4HL). A few weeks ago there was the GameStop stock which accelerated to almost $400 a share in a matter of days because of a subreddit. If you had the Robinhood app and didn’t think Reddit was cringe, you could make a lot of money investing in it at the right time. It was interesting to watch while I was sitting at work.

A few weeks before a mob stormed the US capitol in DC. Again, I was at work while this happened and it was hard to concentrate on my job. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the capitol get raided before. It was exciting to watch.

The people who raided the Capitol weren’t BLM activists or Antifa. They were part of a right wing Trump loyalist conspiracy group called Q-Anon that believe the 2021 election was rigged.

I remember reading about Qanon here and there over the last few years. It seemed very cringe, something Facebook boomers are into. I gave a quick look into their scene and didn’t find anything interesting going on. It almost seemed like a roleplaying game you could engage in to follow the news. Like an interactive experience. But it got bigger and bigger. There are much more interesting conspiracy theories going on right now, but Qanon started getting a lot of heat and a lot of audience participation by “normal people.” I was surprised how big it eventually got, with thousands of people at rallies, and then the subsequent sacking of Congress. It wasn’t just an internet thing, it jumped into the real world.

As I was watching the scene unfolding at the Capitol, I could not help but remember a neighbor of mine when I lived in Illinois. Smart guy, middle class homeowner, had a wife and a child and a manager job at a bank. But he is someone who will believe pretty much anything that involves the government/corporations and nefarious activities. He would have discussions with me about how the deep state and media was out to get Trump, something that was mostly true. But once he saw that I was receptive to outside the box thinking he let loose on topics I didn’t think were interesting or real, like birtherism, climate change being a hoax, 911 being an inside job and 5G mind control.

At times it was interesting and amusing. At other times it was bizarre and difficult to respond to.

How did we get to having casual conversations over conspiracy theories with our nieghbors? How did we get from the “moon landing was fake” to Qanon raiding congress?

There’s a been a societal shift. It’s subtle. it took 15-20 years. I’m not sure people are aware of that we’re living in a different head space than like 2004. These types of conversations weren’t available to people in real life.

Now you have people who are quite intelligent, have decent careers and are not social outcasts talking openly about conspiracies. Like if it was sports.

How did this happen?

Derogatory Term

The term “Conspiracy Theory” is considered an insult or meant to discredit the information. It’s been traditionally used by institutional, governmental and establishment types to minimize people or movements or worse. In the 1970s, Martha Beall Mitchell, wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, was diagnosed with a paranoid mental disorder for claiming that the administration of President Richard M. Nixon was engaged in illegal activities. Many of her claims were later proved correct, and the term "Martha Mitchell effect" was coined to describe mental health misdiagnoses when accurate claims are dismissed as delusional.

The way I use Conspiracy Theory is a neutral term to describe a particular set of assumptions and theories someone has. I don’t see it as negative or positive. A descriptor for a phenomenon.

It reminds me of the word “content”. People sometimes send messages that say “I love your content” to me. The word “content” sounds like something only an executive at some media company would use who is trying to seem hip. But it’s the only descriptor we have to describe what we do online. Posting tweets, pics, videos and 2 way interaction. So, it doesn’t bother me when people use that word.

20th Century Media Monoculture Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories, much like every other genre in the 20th century was limited by the technology at the time. Similar to fashion, music or films there was a set number of conspiracies everyone kind of knew about and sometimes they even made big Hollywood films about them (like Oliver Stones’ JFK).

It was a closed system. It was a monoculture. It’s super clear now looking back now that we’re a decade into decentralization. You can see that the number of conspiracy theories have exploded, compared with the relative static amount in the 20th century. It was limited. JFK, UFOs, Bigfoot, Gulf of Tonkin, USS Liberty, Illuminati, Bilderberg, false flag operations, MKUltra, etc. There was a set number and that was it. Just like there was a set number of celebrities.

Now? You have millions of famous people. I don’t know who pewdiepie is and he has 40 million followers on YouTube. No clue. That wouldn’t happen in the 20th century.

Most importantly, there wasn’t a casual conspiracy theory culture. Someone wouldn’t strike up a convo about elite pedophilia rings, flat earth or Bill Gates wanting to put a microchip in you.

Sure, there were magazines

TV Shows

Art Bell

and 90s Alex Jones

Mostly, Conspiracy was treated as a fun oddity. A few were broadcast on Hollywood films or on TV shows like X-Files. Then you had your entertaining oddball niche characters like Art Bell or 90s Alex Jones on the side. It was still on the other side of the screen. It wasn’t in the “culture”. It wasn’t part of people’s everyday life. It was just another small genre, among dozens, in the 20th century that people were allowed to engage in.

In retrospect, there was nothing dangerous about this genre. It was contained. In a box. It couldn’t do any harm or provide a benefit. But that’s because most 20th century media was controlled from the top down and had one way direction flow of information - from broadcaster to you.

It was nothing like we’re seeing today.

9/11

I think it was after September 11, 2001 when I started seeing the veil torn a little a bit on Conspiracy. You started hearing regular people talk a little about theories about what happened. You started hearing that a) it was an inside job; (b) the President knew about it; (c) there was bombs already in the building; (d) there were foreign agents who assisted in its execution for their own geopolitical concerns; (e) speculation about whether jet fuel could melt certain materials; and (f) whether buildings really fall like that.

Whenever the 9/11 anniversary comes up every year I look at footage from that event and it still shocks me. Airplanes flying into skyscrapers in the middle of the day in New York. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to looking at it. It never gets old.

The 9/11 discourse wasn’t “controlled” like so many other theories were controlled in the 20th century. This wasn’t UFOs or JFK. This was something else. It felt more “bottom up”, like something was opening up beneath all of us. It had an edge to it, it felt real. There was no “gloss” the media or television shows could place on it. It was wild. We didn’t know where the questions were taking us. People were uncomfortable. It made the JFK assassination look like a tea party for little girls. Camp.

I was in High School when 9/11 happened. I remember sitting in class and having some classmates talk about these theories. That never happened before.

The internet was still not like it was today. Sure, you had forums, but culture was not decentralized yet. It was almost there.

So where did this leakage of unregulated Conspiracy theories about 9/11 come from? The political situation.

In 2001, George W. Bush was president. He was hated. Not as much as Trump was, but it was close. The biggest proponents of conspiracy was fueled mostly by leftist-liberal wing of American politics. In September 2002, the first "Bush Did It!" rallies and marches were held in San Francisco and Oakland, California, organized by The All People's Coalition.

When we think of Conspiracy theories now we tend to think it’s mostly made up of right wingers. That wasn’t always the case. I would say most of the conspiracies theories in the 20th century was more leftist than right. This is not surprising since the enemy of the United States during the entire 20th century was the Soviet Union. The CIA actively suppressed leftism throughout the world and domestically. You’d often hear about the “other 9/11” aka Allende in Chile.

This tradition of “leftist” conspiracy theory is still around today. Although not as intense as it used to be. The documentarian Adam Curtis releases entertaining films on conspiracies every few years on the BBC. His work has “critical acclaim” so it’s not considered conspiracy. However, his films follow the conspiracy logic (more on this in Part 2), finding patterns, spinning coincidences and correspondences into connections. Instead of making a claim about cause and effect, though, he will just jusxtapose some images in front of your face and have you make it yourself.

If you watch an Adam Curtis doc you’ll get the sensation you learned how things happened in the same as when you watch Alex Jones on Info Wars. But Alex is a little more direct with his conclusions.

Eventually the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory hardened into an actual Truther movement. It became huge. Colorado Public Television aired several films produced by the Truther movement such as 9/11 Explosive Evidence: Experts Speak Out, which once was one of the "most shared" and "most watched" programs on the national PBS site. It got so big Al-Qaeda got angry and released a statement denying 9/11 was an inside job, they did it and wanted credit.

No one ever saw such a thing before.

Decentralization and Documentaries

Television channels expanded a lot in the 2000s. All of a sudden you had hundreds of channels on TV. And they needed programming. The History Channel used to run documentaries on real history. But one day they decided to run shows about Nazis, they saw the ratings rise. Then they ran shows on Conspiracies, they saw the ratings rise again. Then they decided to combine them.

This is what people wanted to see. The market has spoken.

At the same time this same thing was happening on Netflix. People look at Netlix now with their “Emily in Paris” and “Cobra Kai” content and think its always been that way. No

Netflix content in 2007 was 80 percent documentaries. That was before they had the new films or their own budget. So it was docs like: 1) The 3rd Reich and Nutrition 2) Marijuana cures cancer 3) Lance Armstrong: Hunted American Hero.

Documentaries became huge. Out of nowhere. There was something about uncovering a mystery, using images, videos and controversy. People love it.

At the same time, culture began decentralizing with the maturation of the internet. I’ve written about this before. The introduction of Youtube and social media changed how we interact. Everything splintered into a million shards. There is a million songs on soundcloud, a million projects on etsy, a trillion videos on youtube and a million micro celebs.

All of a sudden, news was two way instead of one way. You gave news and received news. People started examining older 20th century conspiracies, giving them a new analysis using video editing tools. The 9/11 terrorist attack, which happened before the internet matured into what is now, provided a huge subject matter for people to speculate on. Many many docs were made about it. Momentum

Everyone started making documentaries in 2006-2011. YouTube and forum internet culture peaked. They were passed around and were on various topics. But the big ones were about how their was a conspiracy, a conspiracy on government power, diet or whatever. A lot of the videos were dreadful. I couldn’t watch it.

But many other people did. Something was starting.

Wikipedia

One underrated aspect that no one discusses for why Conspiracy is part of our culture now is the existence of Wikipedia. You can spend a lot of time going down a rabbit hole on Wikipedia following links. You can go deep. I’ve spent hours and hours on using Wikipedia like this. You see patterns and connections. You become an amateur researcher uncovering some truth. You feel powerful. You start thinking about patterns and coincidence.

In the 20th century you would need to have gone to the library and picked up books or rented a movie. You weren’t doing that. Nobody was doing that. You have a job.

When you work a job all day and have a few hours to yourself, falling into the Wikipedia rabbit hole is almost tailored made for you. Or watching a 2 hour doc. This is entertainment made for the working man. Short, succinct, with connections, logic, controversy and things you’re not supposed to know about.

Enter Joe Rogan

The Joe Rogan show is the biggest podcast in the world. I don’t think people realize that the first 3-4 years of the show, Joe had on guests who indulged in mostly 20th century conspiracy theories like ancient aliens, the moon landing hoax, 9/11 truthers, nutrition conspiracies, etc. If you look at his show now, it’s much more tame. But he still indulges a little bit.

However, I think his contribution to making Conspiracy as part of our shared culture is profound. He’s made it ok to be someone who is casually into conspiracies and know about them. You’re not a weirdo anymore. In fact, you can be someone who assumes a conspiracy with every event and have it as your default. It’s fine. You don’t trust anything. This is a normal position now.

Jimmy Kimmel isn’t doing that. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien didn’t do that. The big stars of our past weren’t into this type of content. Everyone was on the same page back then.

But that changed. The normal position is conspiracy first: And a lot of people are into that now:

It is no surprise that that the second most watched show is with Alex Jones.

But this isn’t the Alex Jones of the 90s. This is a supercharged man in his prime Alex Jones who has declared victory.

He went from a niche figure in the 20th century media monoculture to a global star. He rode the Conspiracy train to incredible heights. He didn’t change, the society around him changed. Conspiracies became the new normal: 9/11, Epstein, Birtherism, Trump, Qanon, etc.

There has been an Alex Jones-ification of America.

But notice when listening to Alex jones on Rogan, look how moderate he sounds these days. The world has changed. Conspiracy culture is ascendant and there are lots of other wacky view points you read online like Flat Earth theory. Conspiracy theories had to go through a much stricter filter in the Media Monoculture of the 20th century to get people to notice them. Now in a decentralized ecosystem there is no filter and even first impressions can immediately go to conspiracy. From one extreme to another

Look at how entertaining he is. This is way more interesting than Jimmy Kimmel or Stephen Colbert. Look at the flurry of connections and citations. He’s like a rapper

And there even is a discussion on 9/11. The Conspiracy that broke the mold.

Epstein

9/11 was the event that began the new age of Conspiracy as culture. Epstein death took it to new heights. Epstein’s death was not just internet culture. It was culture.

Even New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio publicly announced he was skeptical of the coroner's report. He told reporters "something doesn't fit" during an unrelated press conference in October. A Fox News guest blurted "Epstein didn't kill himself" at the end of his live segment. Trump sent his Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate it. Later on the feds arrested his associate, Ghislaine Maxwell.

A survey conducted in August by the Emerson College Polling Society concluded that 34 percent of Americans believed Epstein was murdered and 32 percent were still "unsure."

Part 2 out next week