My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I admire anonymously the monumental efforts like those of people at Media Matters, who endure hours upon hours of the likes of Fox News so that the sane of us don’t have to watch to see what nonsense is being spewed at any given instance. And then there is Ms. Merlan, who takes such to extremes, diving into the belly of so many beasts to write this she has to have brain bleach on autorefill. Hat’s off and bravo. There have always been conspiracists and their theories – whacky, out there, unreal. I semi-argued in frustration with someone some years ago who thought the feed from the International Space Station was faked, as was the moon landing (it was faked, of course, by Stanley Kubrick, but he always liked to shoot on location 😉 ). Sadly, she wasn’t the only person I’ve known who believed that mind-boggling gem, and I know anti-vaxxers, some who think fluoride is poison brainwashing, and a few Deep Staters and birthers just for starters. The fallout from 2016 is alarming enough that when I saw this, I requested and was sent an Advance Reader’s Edition from the publisher through LibraryThing.
Ms. Merlan calls this “a surreal time”, where the subcultures she writes about are “achieving a hallucinatory new level of fame.” In the western hemisphere, conspiracies have been around since the Euro-occupants (my term) got here. She says
Conspiracy theories tend to flourish especially at times of rapid social change, when we’re reevaluating ourselves and, perhaps, facing uncomfortable questions in the process. In 1980, the civil liberties lawyer and author Frank Donner wrote that conspiracism reveals a fundamental insecurity about who Americans want to be versus who we are.
Well, one need only look to religions to see the same thing.
She’s got a lot here, from the usual Pizzagate & UFOs to Agenda 21 and the kingpin, Alex Jones, medical conspiracies, mind control, Deep State, white nationalists, to the heinous false flaggers (the abuse and harassment the parents of the victims of the so, so many mass school shootings is heart-rending) who think that anything is a government action and government cover up. She’s attended conventions, rallies, interviewed the more famous of the various conspiracy adherents…she even spent a week on a “cruise ship filled with conspiracy theorists.”!! Yes, there is a Conspira-Sea Cruise!
I love her discard of restraint when she calls out the perpetrators: on a manufactured conspiracy around a tragic unsolved murder, rumors and BS were “spurred by the biggest conspiracy megaphone there is: Fox News, specifically Sean Hannity, the network’s biggest Trump defender.” On the real conspiracy of Russians trying to draw the T campaign into its meddling, she says, “we know this because we had the deeply idiotic emails between Trump son-in-chief Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer with ties to the Kremlin…” When Ted Cruz, on his first senatorial run, said on Glenn Beck’s (another serial offender) radio show to cry about Agenda 21 he warned that it would end single-family homes, ranching, private cars, … She says, “that’s not a flase flag; it’s just very, very stupid. (So stupid that the national Republican Party put an anti-Agenda 21 plank in their national platform…) Double slam in one paragraph. And in response to the too little too late semi/pseudo controls of the Facebbok, iTunes, Pinterests, etc. and the really too little and way too late Twit-ter,
And surely, in part, some of these services are hamstrung by a grim, darkly funny logical endpoint: Trump is the best-known political figure on earth to use social media to spread conspiracy theories. Any banning policy would, in the end, have to cover him, too.
Yep. Of course, the Twit-ter lets him violate their abuse policies incessantly, so don’t hold any breaths.
Sometimes the paranoia is too comical: some of the false flaggers even accuse the grand poobah Alex Jones of being a false flag! A government plant spreading hoaxes as real (but their hoaxes are not hoaxes, if you will.)
She calls to task Joesph Uscinski, coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories who said
“I mean, they were burning women at the stake four hundred years ago, long before the Internet Facebook didn’t tell them to do it.” He points out, too, that the number of people who visit conspiracy sites is far lower than those who visit non-conspiratorial, traditional news sites. “There’s tons of everything on the Internet,” he said. “When I put in the words ‘duck confit recipe,’ I get half a million recipes. But nobody’s racing home to cook duck confit. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean anyone cares. The things people look at are things they’re predisposed to look.”
Uscinski’s position doesn’t take into account the role of social media, however. Through Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, more and more people who might not be predisposed to reading about the Clinton body count or pedophiles in the pizza parlor will nevertheless run across tha content.
Nailed it. And she continued: “More important, Facebook and Twitter have a way of flattening information, making every source look the same or appear equally plausible.” There lies a problem with our anti-social media…they feed, we can skip, but not unsee.
In her epilogue, she has a sobering observation that there “are no brakes available. There is no mechanism to prevent another Edgar Welch storming into a pizza parlor or another James Field getting behind the wheel, speeding toward Heather Heyer.”
Countering an idea that has taken root is incredibly hard. Studies suggest that trying to argue someone out of a conspiratorial belief does not work, likening conspiracy theories to religious faith, which helps us see how they can be similarly fixed in the mind.
So true. She also observes that we cannot just label something as fake and turn away, because “millions of people across the country are not doing the same.” Take one look at a certain “News” Channels ratings and you’ll see what she means (my words.)She quotes reporter Sarah Jones, writing for the New RepublicThe alternative is to allow conservative propaganda to fester. An impenetrable bloc of voters will continue to blame Latinos for their woes, to ignore basic facts that are staring them in the face, to trumpet American exceptionalism while neo-Nazis roam the streets, and to look to a strongman in their image to save them. We will have an unfree country, ruled by fear, and if we do not act we will bear some of the responsibility.”
Too much to summarize, read the book. Or don’t. The best way to arm oneself against stupidity is too learn about. Read Ms. Jones’s point again.
[On the overall book, one problem I had was the sourcing, or lack, of a lot quoted material. There was a ten page list of sources in my copy, and no index, but no citations. And the list seemed incomplete. I noticed because I was trying to figure out where one part of a thread came from and didn’t see anything in the end list of sources.]