The Misinformation Superhighway: A Roundtable on the Rise of the Great American Conspiracy

Renata Salecl, Jonathan Berman, and Tea Krulos Talk Anti-Vaxxers, QAnon, Incels and More

When I invited Renata Salecl, Jonathan Berman, and Tea Krulos to have a conversation about the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories, I knew they could’ve kept the discussion going until the eleventh hour. They nearly did. I can’t say I was surprised to find their discussion more clarifying and weirdly, almost beautifully associative than I’d hoped.

Here they accomplish much more than tying together diverse threads. The perhaps innocuous belief in Bigfoot, the refusal to inoculate oneself against disease, and the darker shibboleths of QAnon, while meriting careful study as unique phenomena, are all underscored by a motif that this year has in many ways brought into relief: a desire for community, and even for love.

It sounds like a paradox. Where is the longing for love in a plot to kidnap an American governor? The proverbial partisan divide seems well on its way to widening. And yet, the way misinformation binds certain groups together, these authors suggest, resembles a kind of attraction and attachment that characterizes our most intimate bonds.

How do we convince someone to doubt their intuitions and turn away from love, however toxic? The authors don’t have every answer, but their dizzying insights should suffice for now.

Renata Salecl is the author of A Passion for Ignorance: What We Choose Not to Know and Why (Princeton), which examines the rise of “anti-epistemology”—an active turn away from knowledge, a refusal of expertise. In Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement (MIT), Jonathan Berman provides a broad history of anti-vaccination efforts from the 19th century on, suggesting why we should understand the crisis as not only a public health dilemma, but a cultural one as well.

And one of our most compelling features from the summer came from Tea Krulos’s book, American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness (Feral House). The story of Richard McCaslin and his eponymous alter ego is a strange and occasionally poignant yarn about the late former Marine and cosplayer whose life was a case study in the workings of conspiratorial disbelief.

–Aaron Robertson

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Renata Salecl: While reading Tea’s and Jonathan’s fascinating books, I was wondering how the embrace of conspiracy theories and misinformation is linked to neoliberal ideology which encourages individualism and distrust toward authorities.

In my previous book, A Tyranny of Choice, I was looking at the underside of this ideology. When everything in people’s lives appears to be a matter of choice and when they are presumably free to make out of their lives whatever they want, many people start experiencing anxiety, feelings of guilt, and are under the impression that their failures are the result of bad choices or not working hard on their goals. In regard to what is true and what is not, it appears that people are also embracing radical individualism.

Everyone appears free to “choose” what counts as factual. However, here anxiety and fear of failure can also be motivators for identifying with conspiracy theories. When one is anxious about which interpretation of reality to “choose” from, identifying with popular conspiracy theories might be quite appeasing.

With the anti-vaxxers it especially looks like the anxiety of middle-class parents not to make a “mistake” might be playing an important role in their refusal of inoculation. These parents have been heavily influenced by the idea that success (theirs and their children’s) is a matter of choice.

Jonathan Berman: People do seem to treat medical choices, and choices about what to believe, as equal to other kinds of choices in their lives. For a relatively trivial parenting choice like using cloth or disposable diapers there are multiple schools of thought, and different ways of parenting that fit better with those parents’ identities and lifestyles. Neither choice is inherently better than the other.

When knowledge has been arrived at scientifically, it takes privilege over other kinds of knowledge since science has been the most effective and reproducible way of arriving at new ways of understanding. The choices are not equal. Even though those parents likely see themselves as pro-science, they don’t seem to view the choices as unequally weighted.

I’d say that there’s certainly a degree of financial privilege among anti-vaccine activists. They tend to be wealthier compared to those who cannot afford medical care. I tend to attribute that to a misunderstanding of science, but I could also see a feeling of entitlement to choice as an underlying factor as well.

RS: The Italian doctor Andrea Grinolo in his book Vaccines: Are They Worth a Shot? noticed that many of these rather privileged middle-class parents glorify the idea of nature. For them, it is important that they eat unprocessed food, that they buy organic produce and are perceived as nature-lovers.

In this frame of mind, for some, vaccination is perceived as something that goes against their perceptions about nature and their desires to live a life that embraces a certain contemporary idea of naturalism.

JB: Some of the earliest objections to vaccination used the same language; some saw it as upending a natural order, and were worried that might cause people to become cow-like.

I haven’t been able to develop my thoughts fully yet, but I suspect that there’s a connection between the way that Americans view their relationship to nature and American individualism.

“It seems like a common thread these days is how these groups allow outsiders to find companionship among other outsiders.”

Nineteenth-century transcendentalist nature writers like Muir or Thoreau perpetuated a kind of mythical idea of nature—where if we returned to nature we could live simply without the constraints of society. In some ways it’s a hideous thought. Thoreau wrote about coming upon a shipwreck, seeing bodies littering the seascape, and finding that he took nature’s side in the conflict. On the other hand, Thoreau’s individualism was critical to abolitionist thought and later civil disobedience.

Kurt Anderson’s Fantasyland did a good job of pointing out that Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond was largely a fantasy, since he frequently visited his parents and had aid from others. The distinction between humans and nature, and our ability to function without each other, may be more illusory than we’re comfortable admitting to ourselves. Tea’s book even shows that the Phantom Patriot’s comic about his raid on the Bohemian Grove started with a quote from Walden.

RS: When I was reading Tea’s book, I noticed that many followers of conspiracy theories have a desire to “see” what is behind the power relations. The story of Richard, the comics lover, who wants to observe what the Bohemian Grove looks like is especially intriguing. His desire to set fire to the mythical figure of the owl there and his disappointment when he realizes that the figure is made of concrete and not of wood is especially poignant. At the end he burns one of the lodges, as if no matter what, he needs to leave some destruction, even at the price of his own imprisonment.

This desire to leave a mark, to destroy something, made me think about the desire for destruction that has been observed among some people who actively share online conspiracy theories and fake news. However, as some researchers who interviewed these people have noticed, many of them actually do not believe the theories or news that they are sharing.

Some want destruction. They want to burn everything down. Behind this is, in some cases, a desire for renewal, as if a new society can only emerge after the destruction of the old one.

Tea Krulos: Yes, exactly—Richard and others who think like him believe these ideas because they feel right, it fits into their worldview, and they don’t really want to know the truth. Richard thought of himself as a freedom fighter battling this sinister, secretive cabal of people that needed to be defeated.

I thought about this when I read your chapter “Love is Blind,” Renata—how becoming infatuated with these ideas is a bit like falling in love. The flaws of the person and ideas we fall in love with are ignored. Parts of the conspiracy that are illogical are ignored and minute details that seem to be true are focused on.

RS: Yes, the way these people become infatuated with their ideas does seem like falling in love. Like in actual love, here, too, it is essential to create a fantasy scenario which is crucial for the fascination to go on. No “seeing” what might contradict one’s fascination is essential here.

When I was reading your book, Tea, I was wondering whether there is some similarity between some of the people who are very active in the online conspiracy theory world and the incels I wrote about. I assume that some of the people who passionately embrace conspiracy theories might have felt ignored in real life and some have found very important communities in the online world that they are lacking in their daily lives.

TK: Yes, the online incel and conspiracy communities are similar. They form these echo chambers where they find validation for their ideas and then occasionally some of them snap and become dangerous. Incels and conspiracy theorists are also similar because they focus on the system being rigged against them—it’s the attractive “Chads” or the Deep State that’s causing their misery.

JB: Tea, I’m interested in how pseudo-memory has played a role in some of the conspiracy theories you wrote about. It seemed like there was use of hypnosis and leading questions to generate false memories involved in certain conspiracy theories. For example, in your book there is a story of a woman who claimed to have recovered memories that she was the victim of sex trafficking to multiple US presidents. It also played a significant role in the satanic panic, where unethical therapists used such techniques to generate stories of satanic sexual abuse.

The story of Fran and Dan Keller stands out because they were only released in 2013 after spending more than two decades in prison based on spurious accusations. It seems like the satanic panic never really ended. The same techniques are still used by some therapists, and accusations of satanic ritual abuse are still being made (especially with the rise of QAnon).

Overall I was struck by how tragic Richard’s life was. It seems like what he really wanted was companionship, but every time people came into his life, he drove them away by requiring that they adhere to his conspiratorial beliefs, even as they grew denser and less penetrable. I’m also struck by how closely his story seems to mirror that of “lone wolf” mass shooters who develop plans to go off with a gun and develop notoriety for themselves through violence.

It is interesting (and probably for the best) that he followed the rule that he wasn’t allowed to own a firearm, despite violating the spirit of other rules that were intended to keep him away from the Bohemian Club, or from dressing as the Phantom Patriot.

I also understood what you felt like attending the various meetings and rallies of anti-vaxxers, Flat Earthers, and assassinologists. Although I’m a skeptic with no belief in the paranormal, I often attend paranormal and Bigfoot conventions. I’ve been on dozens of monster and ghost hunts. I’ve had a number of conversations with people with flat-Earth and other fringe beliefs.

It isn’t that I’m performing any kind of journalism, but I find the stories and viewpoints of people who hold those beliefs fascinating. Usually they’re quite willing to talk about their beliefs so long as they do not feel condescended to. It seems like a common thread these days is how these groups allow outsiders to find companionship among other outsiders.

TK: Yes, the book you mention, Trance-formation of America (by Cathy O’Brien and her husband Mark Phillips), is this pseudo-memory pulled from hypnosis sessions about her alleged experiences as a CIA mind-controlled sex slave. In addition to the terrible satanic panic cases you mentioned, you also find this frequently from people who have claimed they were abducted by extraterrestrials. These stories come out after they are hypnotized or sometimes even instructed how to “channel” the alien into their body so it can speak through them.

Jonathan, I agree—they are fascinating. I’m a skeptic about all these topics, too, but I’m interested in the people that hold these beliefs and why they’re drawn to them, especially if it’s just kind of fun and harmless—people who study Bigfoot reports, for example. And I get it. Life can just be so dull sometimes, and having a belief in mystery and adventure, ghosts and secret societies, can be a thrill.

“There’s a conspiracy belief line people cross that I don’t think many people come back from.”

It’s so hard to tell the difference between information that is real and fake that it’s easy to see how people might fall for something that’s been cooked up as a hoax or a deliberate push of misinformation.

I really wished Richard would have found a group he could have been part of. But as you mentioned, his mentality made him impatient and suspicious of people who didn’t see the world like he did. He viewed his lone wolf status as a sort of martyrdom for being a “truth teller.”

I’ve read a couple of articles about people sharing their QAnon stories of severing relationships with friends and family because they can’t deal with the insistence that they absorb messages from Q so that they can learn the truth. The difference is, unlike Richard, they trade their social network for a new one—fellow QAnon believers.

RS: I feel that this new online social network is of crucial importance. It is a community and people feel accepted by other anonymous members in a way that they do not feel accepted by actual family members or friends. One can also easily create fantasies about others in the online world and form attachments without the need to deal with the reality of the person in front of us.

As love feelings thrive in the online world, so do feelings of belonging to a community, the desire to be noticed and the hunger for communication. It is not surprising that these online communities are thriving in our highly individualized societies.

JB: Tea, memory research is always terrifying because the message it seems to send is that memory is unreliable, and we incorporate stories about our past as legitimate memories. We don’t have much ability to differentiate the real from the unreal. I hope in the future courts look on recovered memories with more skepticism.

My initial appraisal of the way online anti-vaccine activists used shunning against those who left the movement was that it was a means of social control. They are trying to send a message to others who might leave the group that there are negative consequences for their social lives. Maybe that’s too simplistic. Maybe, like with Richard, spending time with people with differing views is too challenging to their belief system. Rather than lashing out to punish those who leave, they’re lashing out to protect themselves from being exposed to opposing views.

It’s appealing to think that Bigfoot hunters are just trying to find an escape from a dull life. However, there are a couple of exceptions, like Grover Krantz, who has a legitimate anthropology career that was harmed by his association with Bigfooters. I do think it is telling that when real conspiracies are uncovered such as Watergate, the Trump campaign’s attempts to solicit foreign interference, or the Epstein story, rather than taking these as vindication of the conspiracy worldview, these stories are dismissed or reworked into another grand conspiracy narrative.

Perhaps the only way they know how to function is as outsiders. Rather than celebrate the actual discovery of new species, or rediscovery of species thought extinct, cryptozoologists seem determined to hunt for monsters they’ll never find evidence of. Perhaps if a North American great ape were discovered they would dismiss it as too short.

Renata, your discussion of how people perceive genetics is interesting to me because I tend to criticize the industry around genetic testing for related reasons. People have unreasonable expectations about what these tests can tell them about themselves. Something like the photic sneeze response or ability to taste certain substances can be clearly tested for, as are predispositions for certain diseases, but other information seems to be used by people inappropriately.

People see certain tests as unveiling information about who they are as people, or as a way to assert the right to belong to certain cultural groups based on ancestry. It is similar to the way that people will find general descriptions in astrology or MBTI tests and assign high precision to those descriptions of their lives.

The idea of studying ignorance is interesting. Philosophers have spent a lot of time and thought on epistemology—they study knowledge, but how much thought has been put into anti-epistemology? When I’m discussing research projects with students, they often want to start by listing what we know, but I sometimes ask them to start with a list of what we don’t know, since that’s often a more useful area of inquiry.

“When some doomsday scenarios that conspiracy theories predicted did not happen, there is usually no problem creating alternative explanations which allow the groups to go on.”

Tea, you have some discussion of incels in your book. I find the language that they use fascinating. They’ve developed an almost impenetrable vocabulary that I suppose is useful for them to signal to one another who belongs to the group and who doesn’t.

The incel pantheon of fertility gods, Chad, Stacy, Becky and Tyrone are also fascinating. Since they’ve defined romantic success and sex in such specific, unattainable ways they’ve managed to build a totally self-sustaining belief system. People who hold these beliefs are very unlikely to find sex partners because their worldview is so odious.

TK: I wanted to note a big story—the plot by a group of men who identified as the Wolverine Watchmen militia to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. They had firearm training sessions on a rural property here in Wisconsin. My editor sent me a link to the property owner’s Twitter page and sure enough, it was filled with links to conspiracy ideas—lots of stuff related to anti-vaxxers as well as QAnon media and theories about 5G, voter fraud, and of course, the “plandemic.”

A couple of the other militia members shared similar ideas on their social media, too. This is really frightening. One thing I wondered while working on my book is how do we fight against misinformation? Jonathan outlined some great advice for talking to anti-vaxxers, but what else can we do?

JB: I think people are most vulnerable to disinformation when it becomes tied to deep fears or personal or political identity (it doesn’t help to have the president saying positive things about QAnon during his town hall). Hopefully at some point the story people tell about QAnon is less “why they’re wrong,” and more “what are the anxieties they’re trying to address? What are the insecurities they’re filling with conspiracy thinking?”

YouTube and Facebook recently banned QAnon content, and there seems to be some evidence that deplatforming can be successful (even if other outlets still exist).

RS: I doubt one can change someone’s opinion by talking with him or her. We should not forget that the groups that share certain conspiracy theories are providing new types of community, which in our highly individualized society is something that helps with appeasing the anxieties that Jonathan talks about. The content of the conspiracy theories appears of secondary importance to this community-forming that happens around particular ideas.

When some doomsday scenarios that conspiracy theories predicted did not happen, there is usually no problem creating alternative explanations which allow the groups to go on. I remember reading about the Immortalists (people who think that we can achieve immortality if we believe in it). When one of them died, the explanation was not that their theory does not hold, but that the particular person who died failed.

The Immortalists’ explanation was that there were signs showing how this person doubted the idea of immortality, which is why the person died. I feel that one cannot easily fight against conspiracy theories with rational explanations, since it appears that the identification with the conspiracy ideas involves not only a particular individual’s emotions, but also strong community bonds, which a believer of conspiracy theories will not easily want to discard.

JB: Tea, do you think there’s anything you could have said to Richard that might have changed his mind?

TK: I don’t think there’s anything I could have said to Richard to change his mind. There’s a conspiracy belief line people cross that I don’t think many people come back from. The most striking example (other than QAnon) are Flat Earthers. You can show them scientific papers, photos, videos, etc. and they will say it’s all fake and that all of NASA is a lie. It’s futile to try to argue with that and the cognitive dissonance Renata mentioned.

RS: Yes, but that does not mean that scientists and people who believe in scientific discourse should not work hard to bring science closer to people. It is thus very important that scientific discoveries are presented to the general public as clearly as possible. For the new vaccines for COVID-19 it will be most important that there be honesty both about their potential side effects and the importance of getting oneself vaccinated.

“Maybe there is a backlash against Steve Bannon’s theory which saw the value in misinformation being picked up by the mainstream media.”

As Jonathan rightly points out in his book, the pharmaceutical industry’s non-transparency has in the past contributed to people’s skepticism about vaccines. With doubts about vaccination, we are, however, often observing a paradox when people do not vaccinate their children but might in an unacknowledged way expect that others will and that will contribute to the elimination of a particular disease.

JB: It is interesting that the misinformation in the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s emails hasn’t gained as much traction as, say, the Comey letter did in 2016. At least so far it does not appear to have influenced polling. Perhaps a ray of hope exists in people being a little bit savvier in thinking about misinformation, and protecting themselves against it.

RS: Yes, I was also positively surprised that the so-called mainstream media did not pick it up. So, maybe there is a backlash against Steve Bannon’s theory which saw the value in misinformation being picked up by the mainstream media. It is not enough that certain rumors or fake news are circulating in the conservative media.

For Bannon such news becomes a “weapon” and gains legitimacy when the mainstream media are writing about it, even if they express doubt. Maybe the only way to fight against fake news and conspiracy theories is to ignore them.

TK: They shouldn’t be given legitimacy, but I think it’s important for people to know what they are, where they come from, and who profits in some way from them spreading. That can be someone making money, like Alex Jones, who has made millions via his website InfoWars, or like Renata mentioned, someone like Steve Bannon or Trump who weaponizes these ideas to attack opponents and push agendas.

Jonathan, I hope you’re right. We really need a ray of light right about now.






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