Among the many propaganda support agencies, Donald Trump relies on, perhaps InfoWars is one of the more obvious and perhaps most odious. Camouflaged as a website of lifestyle choices and run by Alex Jones, InfoWars is not only very profitable but also a core propaganda institution that spins conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories existed before Donald Trump made it to the White House. One of the more obscene pre-Trump conspiracy theories was that the government was trying to make everyone gay through chemical warfare. Nonsense like this testifies to the time-honoured truth that it is the non-gays who want to convert gays and not the other way around. Other conspiracy theories are that the government faked a number of mass shootings and acts of terrorism like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
Alex Jones also believes that Barak Obama was born in Kenya while claiming that Donald Trump is a truth- teller. This truth-teller is also fond of conspiracy theories. Trump even brought conspiracy theorists like Ben Carson into his cabinet. Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, also spins conspiracy theories. With Trump, conspiracy theories have become part of the US government. As such, conspiracy theories often come with a reasonable amount of paranoia. With the rise of conspiracy theories, perhaps the USA might better be called USL – United States of Lies or USP – United States of Paranoia.
Some of these paranoia peddling conspiracy theorists believe that there is a secret paedophile ring in Washington that makes up 30% of the federal government. Baloney like this might sound laughable, but it often simmers just a little bit below the mainstream. The distance between both is very short when people like Alex Jones (conspiracy theorist and InfoWar boss) is on Donald Trump’s (conspiracy theorist and president) speed dial.
Currently, such conspiracy theories are flourishing. They usually do in times of rapid change and when significant events like COVID-19 defined societies. These conspiracy theories also reveal fundamental insecurity about who we want to be versus who we actually are. Besides this, conspiracy theories seek to explain events like the Coronavirus in terms of an all- inclusive mythical narrative, worldview, or ideology. All too often, this is based on the simplistic notion of Good vs Evil. In that respect, they carry connotations of religion.
Four Elements of Conspiracy Theories
Useful for conspiracy theories is an almost ingrained suspicion of authority figures and authorities which is basically not a bad thing, but it becomes terrible when conspiracy theorists build irrational explanations for their suspicion. Four of the most common features of conspiracy theories, in fact, its raison d’être is that the world is governed, and things happen because of a small group of people – the conspirators. And secondly, that their action is set against “the” people – seen as a homogeneous entity – a Good vs Evil theme. An almost classic example of conspiracy theory’s Good vs Evil theme is Ted Cruz’s l’idée fixe that the United Nations has developed a secret plan called “Agenda 21” to invade the USA to take guns. In this, the UN is the secret conspirator. “Evil” is the plan to invade the USA and take guns, and this is directed against the good people of America. It sounds plausible, but it is utter claptrap.
A third feature is that everything happens for a reason. This is known as LIHOP – let it happen on purpose and
MIHOP – made it happen on purpose. The fourth feature of conspiracy theories is that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are very likely to believe in other conspiracy theories as well. There is a kind of domino effect. It is unlikely to find only a single conspiracy theory on outlets like BeforeItsNews.com, NoDisinfo.com, GodLikeProductions.com, VeteransToday.com, NewsBuster.org, WorldNetDaily, Reddit.com, TheConservativeTreehouse.com, and of course, InfoWars.com. It is also unlikely to find that Alex Jones and Donald Trump only believe in one single conspiracy theory.
What makes conspiracy theories so prevalent in 2020 are four factors: firstly, they came at a time when the Internet furnishes people with a tremendous capacity to publish conspiracy theories; secondly, they came at a time of rising right-wing populism (Trump, etc.); thirdly, they appear when a severe event shapes societies (e.g. Coronavirus); fourthly, conspiracy theories are manufactured when they make money through websites that can sell users’ details to advertisers. Conspiracy theories can be monetised and commercialised. But they are also pushed by the algorithms of Google, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. These algorithms operate on the old tabloid formula: if it bleeds, it leads, if it thinks, it sinks. These are machines that push the most sensational nonsense. In fact, to those mathematical machines, it is not nonsense at all, it is just a number in a formula – albeit with dire consequences.
Beyond that, having a conspiracy theorists in the White House also pushes them. Donald Trump has two important impacts. First, conspiratorial fringe figures move into the centre of politics. And second and perhaps even more importantly, conspiracy theories spread uncertainty while damaging truth and trustworthiness.
It remains imperative to understand that conspiracy theories aren’t proliferated by accident. They do not emerge spontaneously. Instead, they serve a political and ideological purpose. They seek to destroy trust in official institutions, in experts, in democracy, in credible media, in government, and in science. In many countries, conspiracy theories have not been unsuccessful in achieving this. We see poll after poll after poll measuring the decline of public trust in these vital institutions.
Conspiracy theories like Pizzagate are of great assistance to right-wing populism. Pizzagate was shared roughly 1.4 million times by more than 250,000 accounts even though the pizza shop did not even have a basement for the supposed child porno ring to be operating from. Not unlike the man who wanted to free children from the non-existing basement, the lives of conspiracy theorists too can be incredibly lonely. This furnishes yet another myth – the lone hero on the hunt for the truth, working against a battalion of enemies and lies.
Like many conspiracy theories, Pizzagate never really ended. None of its most high-flying members has ever admitted that they were totally wrong. Most importantly, the conspiracy theory created a momentum against Clinton. Right-wing populism won. It appears as if conspiracy theories of America’s right- wing, their bots, religion, scapegoating, American ultra-conservatives, white power people, and the evangelical right are strangely, uniquely, but most disturbingly, unrelenting.
To maintain conspiracy theories, even faced with very serious evidence to the contrary, conspiracy theorists have developed a range of defence mechanisms. These mechanisms follow a distinctive and often repeated pattern. Factual evidence is rejected, and the victims are “supposedly wounded or killed”. It is claimed, these are mere actors. They are not real victims. The photos and videos showing a real event are doctored and manufactured. They do not show the truth. The witnesses that are presented are all paid for by the government. Spooks and state agents fabricate the rest. This renders conspiracy theories almost non- penetrable. Worse, conspiracy theorists use the official debunking of conspiracy theories to create new conspiracy theories. To them, it merely opens a new door for more conspiracy theories.
The bread and butter issue of conspiracy theorists is to take a significant and preferably violent event which at first glance means one clear thing to most observers and turn it to mean something entirely different. Since most conspiracy theories are right-wing, this new and much more politically meaning tends to favours the course of right-wing populism.
From Fringe to Fox
Crucially, the same or very similar conspiracy theories are often broadcast by a number of different outlets. This creates the incorrect appearance of a multitude of sources. American right-wing populism offers a host of unholy and often somewhat chaotic groupings and loses association among various people, bots, trolls, and your average garden-variety conspiracy theorists. This is driven by an implicit and at times even explicit interest symbiosis among various right-wing groups and institutions. They are united based on prevailing right-wing ideology – the same ideology is broadcasted by a multitude of groups advancing untrue stories, accidental misinformation, and deliberate disinformation. As these conspiracy theories work their way through the various outlets, eventually some of them are shovelled into the mainstream.
In order for a conspiracy theory to go truly “viral”, a right-wing conspiracy theory depends on a famous name or a famous event. Both work as accelerants. They are connective elements for a conspiracy theory. They link a conspiracy theory that originated at the political fringe to the mainstream. Lucky, right-wing conspiracy theories now have Fox.
One of the biggest megaphone for conspiracy theories still is Fox News, and within Fox, it is Sean Hannity who remains the network’s most prominent Trump defender. Not far off is Rod Wheeler who also appears on Fox News but who likes to claims that gangs of lesbians were stalking US streets recruiting children. This is the aforementioned homophobic l’idée fixe that gays want to attack us. In reality, it is the exact opposite.
But long before conspiracy theories enter the orbit of Donald Trump and Fox News, they are invented and, more importantly, believed by people who have long abandoned traditional sources of information. They reject the government and official institutions from which information can be gathered. While rejecting quality media, they turn to the Internet. Unlimited access to the Internet works in favour of D.I.Y. fact invention and the manufacturing of conspiracy theories.
Most conspiracy theories never make it into the mainstream as far as one might consider Fox News mainstream. Still, most conspiracy theorists never even wear a tinfoil hat, and there are a good number of conspiracy theorists who believe in the original idea of a tinfoil hat which is to keep the government from beaming its evil rays into our brain. Nonetheless, the road from right-wing conspiracy theories to homegrown militias, right-wing assassins, and violent terrorism is often very short.
Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories
Almost by nature, where there are right-wing conspiracy theories, antisemitism is never far off. For many conspiracy theories, it still remains Adolf Hitler’s eternal Jews who work in hidden rooms and who is the rotten core of every evil. Even after the Holocaust, Auschwitz and the Einsatzgruppen, the Jew still remains the most powerful foe, the hooked nose behind everything wrong in America.
There are still plenty of conspiracy theories still peddling the nonsense of the Protocols. To the antisemitic conspiracy theorist, the Jew never sleeps and works 24/7 to eradicate us – again the reversal of the truth. It was the Aryan race that almost eradicated Jewish men, women and children, from Europe. It was not the other way around. One is not surprised to learn that Donald Trump has cut millions from the Holocaust Museum’s budget.
Paranoia goes well with antisemitism and with antisemitic conspiracy theories. Feeding on the Good vs Evil myth, conspiracy theories try to make people believe that Jews want to take control through powerful institutions like the financial system; Muslims want to force everyone to convert and implement Sharia law; and Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of US sovereignty.
Other antisemitic conspiracy theories blamed most of the world’s problems including some sort of frequently rehearsed “moral decline” on the Jews. They also believe the Jews own the whole media. Even though today, the Neo-Nazi Daily Stormer is believed to reach about 220,000 readers in the United States every month.
Like Donald Trump, they too are believers of Deep State conspiracy theories. They believe that there is a sinister team of unelected but powerful people hiding within the federal government and working to bring the Trump administration down. Much of this has an ideological purpose. We know that that frequent exposure to anti-government conspiracy theories makes people less likely to vote. This is called voter suppression. It is a highly helpful instrument for the Republican party. At the same time, people subjected to climate change conspiracy theories, for example, are also less motivated to reduce their carbon footprint. Both conspiracy theories work in Donald Trump’s favour.
Beyond that, what right-wing conspiracy theorists also achieve when peddling conspiracy theories is that it decreases political engagement because people are left feeling powerless. Powerless people not only dis-engage from the public sphere and exit politics, but they are also more likely to cling to an all-powerful and strong Führer. Donald Trump marches on – just as outlined in Anna Merlin’s new book Republic of Lies which is published by Penguin.