Lost on the Internet | Conspiracy and Identity

A few years ago a friend of mine got lost on the internet.

He had just moved to a new city to start an exciting new job when he was suspended from work for a year.   He knew no-one and was lost and alone and anxious.   He spent much of his time on-line in a world of right wing forums and message boards.  He had always had a reactionary tendency, which this new on line world fed on. That these forums were almost all US based, and dominated by American political obsessions didn’t matter.

He had succumbed to what the great US historian Richard Hofstader called The Paranoid Style:  “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy”

American conspiracism stems from the difficulty of defining a national identity. In a land of immigrants, some Americans have resorted to demonizing outsiders as a way of bolstering their own sense of self.”

I don’t see him any more.  His political obsessions have taken over to such an extent that they have become his personality, his identity.   

The blurring of political and personal identity on line correlates across these message boards with loneliness and dislocation.

I’ve always loved conspiracy theories.  I adored the X-Files and thought it was a TV show made just for me.   I also spent time on conspiracy theory websites, and recognised some of the material my friend was exposed to.   But for me it was always a laugh.   I loved the weird logic, and crazy claims, but I never felt the need to believe it.

Over the last year I revisited some of those websites, trying to re-trace his footsteps through the conspiracy minded parts of the internet.  Mostly these were right wing and sharply pro-Trump; Above Top Secret. The Great Awakening, Zero Hedge.   For comparison I joined some UK sites too, although for real British madness nothing compares to Jeremy Corbyn Facebook groups; “Jeremy Corbyn is My PM” is the connoisseurs choice. 

Along with lots of bad fan art this is what I found.

Loss of status in times of change

The basis of any group on line or real works is a sense of belonging or identity.  The world is changing fast and people of all kinds seek out things that give themselves a sense of belonging.  That is the nature of on-line worlds.   Often the need for identity is driven by loneliness.  The US and the UK are in the grips of an epidemic of loneliness, and older, socially conservatives who grew up on homogenous communities feel that loss of identity and belonging profoundly.  

The members of right wing forums are dominated by people who feel themselves to be the sons of the soil, the original inhabitants, and as such they should have privileges and status that is withheld from other groups, a nebulous group who include not just immigrants, but people who do not share their values – well educated, urban or diverse.  

They feel deeply a loss of status, they feel that they have been downgraded and that other groups have flourished at their expense.    Sometimes this is perception – they are still privileged, just less so, but some of it is real – changes to the economy have created winners and losers, and the less well educated, rural and older population feel that they have done worse.  Gains for a minority group were always seen as meaning losses for white men.  

They have a clear idea of who is the real and authentic American, and they believe that they have the right to decide where that boundary lies.   That definition always has a racial element, and always is in relation to immigration. 

The racist element is not always spelt out, in fact often overtly racist language is prohibited, but that is because it doesn’t need to be stated or explained, participants know that “taking back our country” means white people taking it back. 

A great example of this is the Obama birth certificate conspiracy theory.  It started with a bunch of people who were uncomfortable with the idea of a black President; some of them were racists, but others were just people who had been brought up with the idea of a President looking and sounding a certain way and Obama didn’t fit.  

For people who were uncomfortable with Obama the birth certificate conspiracy theory connected with them – it gave them an answer they could live with that brought order back into their lives without them having to resort to overt racism

The long march to madness

The American right have been on a long march away from reality and into a fantasy world for a long time.   Their embrace of Nixons racist fantasies, Reagans inability to tell reality from his own movie career, George W Bush a rich privileged East coast drunk cosplaying a Texas oil man in cowboy boots.  Trump, a reality TV star, whose own life was a web of lies and hyperbole was just the latest step.  It is easier to imagine the Republican Party picking a cartoon character as a Presidential candidate than it is to imagine them picking an Eisenhower or a Roosevelt.  

Their retreat into fantasy is in direct relationship to the precariousness of their own politics.  The last Republican to win the popular vote twice and serve 2 full terms was Reagan.  Before him it was Eisenhower in the 50s (although he was President in name only for his last 2 years following a stroke).   Before Eisenhower it was Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago.   The US political system amplifies the voting power of rural white voters, which in turn gives the Republicans an electoral advantage, but even with it they struggle to stop an inevitable shift towards a prosperous, well educated, liberal, multi-racial America

The socially conservative right are bitterly frustrated that despite their amplified political power the US has become more and more liberal, and more comfortable with a diverse population that it has ever been.  They are prepared to tolerate ever more extreme tactics to try and stem a tide of change that they can never defeat.   

From Nixon onwards American right wing politics absorbed a group of mainly Southern voters who were hostile to Civil Rights legislation and had a powerful racial animus.   Republicans were happy to harvest their votes but kept them at arms length.  On-line the boundaries between outright white nationalism and reactionary conservatism has broken down, even if users are circumspect about using outright racist language 

Violence 

There is an ever present undertone of violence expressed in right wing on line forums.    Mostly these are apocalyptic fantasies, which place violent men as necessary heroes against a destructive modernity.

These fantasies often portray violent men as protectors of families or women, particularly protecting children from cabals of abusers.    

Often it is clear that posters have no family to protect, and that their failure to form the relationships with women necessary to raise a family are part of their frustration with the modern world.   

Their violence is aimed a controlling those they protect just as much as those the oppose, 

For those who haven’t been exposed to it one of the central themes of modern right wing conspiracy theories is the existence of a cabal of child abusers who include liberal politicians and Hollywood celebrities who keep children in tunnels for sexual abuse and ritual murder.   

Those who believe in these conspiracies also largely believe that they are part of a movement that includes Donald Trump and the Space Force that is working to free these children.

This may sound totally bananas, but authoritarian anti-abortion beliefs are so entrenched on the US right that they are no longer questioned.   If you believe that feminists, liberals and Democrat voters are in favour of murdering children, it is only a small step in logic to believing in a cabal of child abusers.  

The people on line who are angriest about the imaginary child abuse don’t have children of their own, just as the people most angry and teaching critical race theory in schools don’t have school age kids

Simple Stories

The Obama birth certificate was a simple story, and people want simple stories in a world that is too complicated and abstract, too fast moving and ambiguous.   The simple story gives then a sense of control, a smug sense of knowing that they know a truth hidden from others, and a feeling of being a brave rebel standing up to a tyrannical authority controlling the fast moving, abstract, complex world.  

But the simple truth is never enough.  Once people who share ideas in the pub or over the phone with their friends.   Now they gather on line and these simple ideas get elaborated, creating a mythos of their own.  

If they stuck with simple stories they would find it much easier to convince people, but convincing people actually isn’t the point.  There is much discussion about waking up the masses of unbelievers, and a coming moment when they will realise the truth they have been missing – but actually the true believers don’t really want that – the feeling of knowing a secret truth hand possessing some superior knowledge is so much a part of the kick they get that if the world turned around and agreed with them they would immediately move onto something else.

The contagion of bad ideas

In the old days before the internet if you had a crazy idea you would keep it to yourself, or tell your mates down the pub.  Your mates would usually tell you in no uncertain terms that the idea was crackers and that would be the end of it.  It might not persuade you not to believe it any more, but it would discourage you from spreading it

With the rise of the internet it is easy to find other people who share that same crazy idea, and to join on line communities of like minded people.  These communities don’t just offer a place to share the madness, but they give a sense of community and identity.    For people who are lonely, and insecure they can come to play a huge role in their lives – people posting 1500 times a month or more 

But once you have joined a forum to share that crazy idea you start and encounter offer crazy ideas.   In order to fit in and continue that reassurance of community and identity people start and adopt these other crazy ideas.   People who start off believing that the Government is hiding the truth about UFOs come to believe that the Government is hiding the truth about Trumps 2020 Presidential election win.    QANON fans become anti-vaxxers.  

Judgemental lives next door to gullible….

On line forums, right and left are dominated by very judgemental individuals who believe that their side of the argument has a monopoly not just on truth, but on ethics and morality.  The other side are not just mistaken, they are evil.

Judgemental people are the easiest to persuade, the easiest to con.  The more judgemental someone is the more they make snap decisions based on gut instinct.  All you have to do is make sure that you are the one presenting them with something that triggers their gut instinct, connects with their prejudices and preconceptions.    The more people make snap decisions and trust gut instinct, the more likely they are to trust those snap judgements, and to have an unshakable belief in their own decision making powers.  That’s why it is almost impossible to persuade the victim of a con that they have been conned.   They will believe any kind of weird logic rather than unwind the con.  

The right in US politics has long recognised the gullibility of their own supporters. In the old days signing up for a right wing political campaign would guarantee that you would be sent endless leaflets promoting get rich quick and pyramid schemes.  Today registering with right wing websites will fill up your inbox with adverts for equally dubious investment opportunities.   

….And cynical is their neighbour 

Once you believe that all mainstream politicians are the same, they all lie, and they are all out for themselves you might as well just go with the politician who pushes your buttons the way you like them to be pressed, who plays to your knee jerk reactions

Freedom of speech

White male conservatives in the US and the UK grew up in a world where their opinions were privileged – society, the press, the TV all amplified their voices, while shushing women, liberals and people of colour.   

So dominant was that privilege that there was outrage when a TV channel, or a newspaper published something that upset the white male conservative status quo.

I will admit, that I was, and still am, a beneficiary of that.   It is easier to get your views heard, whether it is in a room of investors, or in a pub, if you are articulate, well educated, white and male.  The fact that I am tall as well helps too.

We now live in a world where the privileges of white male conservatives are still significant, but less than they were – they have to compete with other voices – female, trans, non-white, liberal.    They have to actually come up with arguments that have merit rather than simply stridently asserting them.  

The fear on the right of censorship or cancel culture isn’t because anyone is being silenced, but because less and less people are listening to them. They have to compete on line alongside other voices.  In reaction they shift further and further to the right in order to get some attention.

Trump and Johnson are popular because they have found a way to articulate the views of older, white, conservative voters that make them feel listened to, even if it is pompous snobs doing the talking.  They would rather listen to a reactionary idiot than an articulate woman or person of colour.

We have, sadly raised a generation of middle aged men who believe that the world needs to listen to their needy opinions respectfully and without question.  Anything else is an attack on free speech

Tribal Elders

Message Boards and web forums have moderators, and owners, who enforce standards of conduct and language.  They may be tight or loose, but they exist.  On some of the boards they enforce a strict ideological line – anyone 

But in addition to this webforums have elders – posters who have been around for a long time and who can exercise influence on how debates take place and moderate some of the craziness.   In non-conspiracy forums I am a member of this is quite marked with a small set of long standing members calming down the more excitable ones.   

Places like Above Top Secret don’t have those tribal elders any more.   Anyone who is not fully signed up to the craziness in all of it’s aspects is driven out or banned from posting.  The elders of the community are exiled and any possible mitigation is driven out.

The failure of any of the QANON claims to come true, and the indefinite postponement of Trumps 2nd coming led to a lot of people abandoning forums, the last of the grown ups left at that point.

Those who are left are more like a cult of a commune than a traditional on line community

The thing about a cult or a commune is that the more demanding and exacting the rules the more likely people are to stay with it.  This might seem counter intuitive – you would assume that cults or communes with lax rules would be easier to stick with, but the opposite is true.,  The harsher the rules the more you have to invest in taking part,  The more you have invested the harder it is to leave.   

The madder the belief system the more you have to lose by leaving, and the more people stick with it.    This is the Jonestown massacre effect.   The more you invest in it, the higher the price of leaving. 

Message boards, just like all forms of social media, work on a system of likes and comments.   Posters get rewarded with affirmation and attention.  

Message boards have a hierarchy of posters, those who start the most threads, get the most comments and the most likes are at the top.   People like the attention, the likes, the comments, even if they post controversial stuff and some of the comments are negative.   

Often the more extreme the post the greater the reward for the poster, and the more they have invested.   

The process of posting, assessing and vetting information against the framework of a conspiracy theory connects forum members who may be genuinely trying to learn the truth, as well as those who tend to distrust traditional sources of information. They feel that they are seeking for truth, bonding with other forum members and by gaining superior knowledge they boost their own self esteem.

They feel that they are protecting their group from attackers by outsiders.

Epilogue

As Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine the reaction was the same from US Trumpers and UK Corbynites.  Both sides attacked NATO as the aggressor, were apologists for Putin and even used the same language  – “don’t poke the Russian bear’.  So similar were their denunciations of NATO that it was hard to escape the suspicion that the same Russian disinformation systems were targeting both ideological extremes to build support.  Certainly large numbers of posts appeared in the following days apparently written by people for who English wasn’t their first language pushing Pro-Putin lines.   

Some cheered on the Russians in the belief that their real target were secret US and UN bacteriological weapons labs hidden by the CIA in the Ukraine.  

These views may seem crazy but there are a group in the right in the US (and the UK) who have great admiration for Putin’s reactionary authoritarian regime and who would be happy to give up their rights in return for having their status in society restored.  Putin is the great defender of white conservative Christian values in a world destroyed by modernity.    Vapid conspiracism on the right about Trumps election victory overlaps with a broader set of conservative beliefs that the only legitimate government for the USA is An authoritarian, white nationalism government – inherent in this is the belief that lots of democrat voters aren’t real Americans

I am a 50 something man and I understand the attraction of retreating into a fantasy world.  Life’s disappointments, personal failures, the sense of wasting a life makes a fantasy world attractive.  

I am baffled however that people have chosen such a bleak fantasy world populated by paedophiles, sinister conspiracies, racism in violence rather than sex and glamour and psychedelic music.  

The question I was still left with was whether deep down participants were aware that their beliefs were bonkers, that the new that they made no sense at all?

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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