There’s a fantastic new—at least I think it’s pretty new—sub-reddit section that’s a catchall for some of the more idiotic conspiracy theories out there. Titled ‘Conspiratards,’ for the most part, the forum consists of postings debunking the willy-nilly fever dream dot-connecting of Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, the 9-11 truthers, birthers, LaRouchites, Tea partiers, Ron Paul fanboys and David Icke. If you are so inclined, it’s a fucking laugh riot.
As you might imagine it’s also one of the most vicious and biting forums on all of reddit—which is really saying something—and many true believers have a vendetta against the forum’s very existence. There’s a disclaimer on the sidebar that directs readers to the “Controversial” tab:
Special Note: Conspiratards hate free speech and religiously down-mod good submissions here, so be sure to check out the “controversial” submissions that they don’t want you to see!
When you talk about conspiracy theories, there are, of course, REAL conspiracies and crimes—things which can be proven in a court of law and that actually happened historically (Watergate and the Iran Contra scandal come immediately to mind) and then there’s the utter lunatic bullshit that Alex Jones propagates on his radio show, the Montauk Project book series and Brice Taylor, the self-proclaimed mind-controlled sex slave of Bob Hope, the CIA and Henry Kissinger). When you get down to the “lizard people” level, I’m not sure what value these empty mental calories provide as a part of one’s intellectual diet, but from a sociological viewpoint, it’s fascinating to gawk at the loopy things that some people are willing to believe, absent any proof other than a sweaty, obnoxious fat guy shouting that it’s all a big government cover-up (A pic of Alex Jones looking suitably barking mad is the Conspiratards’ mascot).
I’ve watched as the conspiracy theory subculture degenerated from serious, yet unorthodox, inquiry and investigative journalism (the high point was the late 80s, early 90s when zine culture still flourished) to the mentally unstable jabberwocky of Jones, the Fox News reichwing propaganda machine and the smirking, immature fratboy fascists at Breitbart we have today. It’s gone from fascinating to pathetic and there’s a world of distance between the likes of a great, non-conformist mind such as Mae Brussell or her disciple Dave Emory, and a bi-polar paranoid numbskull like Alex Jones.
Because of the popularity of Disinformation, which launched in 1996 when the Internet was still a new thing to most people, I was often asked to comment on conspiracy theories on television shows and newscasts from all over the world. Out of “nowhere” these “theories” appeared to be gaining a level of acceptability in the culture, and this seemed to alarm traditional journalists and so they would have someone like me—or Jonathan Vankin, author of Conspiracies, Cover-Ups and Crimes, still the definitive book on conspiracy theorists) explain it for their listeners, viewers or readers. Both Jonathan and myself were bemused onlookers, not true believers in any way, so we tended to be the “go to” guys for that stuff back then.
I was always asked these two questions, or some variation thereof: “Have you ever investigated a conspiracy theory that you were skeptical of, only to find that you ultimately came to believe it?” (“No,” is the very short answer) and they also always wanted to know how the general public would be able to tell shit from shinola in this brave new Internet era…
This was the trickier question to answer, but to a large extent, I’d give the same answer today as I did fifteen years ago: “If it sounds like something they already believe, and it’s presented with a certain level of slickness, be it a professional TV graphics package, or good web design, then a certain segment of the population probably will believe it—fervently—and there’s not a lot that can done about it.”
I’ve had TV hosts gasp when I said that, but I wasn’t trying to imply—certainly not—that Lyndon LaRouche’s website would be on equal footing with The New York Times, but I was on the record several times back then predicting that “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” as defined by Richard Hofstadter in his famous 1964 essay of the same title, would become very popular in the coming decade as a form of entertainment.
It’s not about the John Birch Society-type ideas, or those of Glenn Beck’s idol, W. Cleon Skousen, per se—they’ve been languishing in the background for 50-60 years—but the slicker presentation of these kinds of ideas in a wide-open, low barrier to entry mediaverse that is seeing them flourish and gain traction in a way that never could have been imagined when Hofstadter wrote his essay. Today what used to be the fringe is the mainstream.
Consider the right wing “bubble” that the Mitt Romney campaign and the GOP were accused of living in during the 2012 election. If Breitbart.com looked like Free Republic, it’s doubtful that it would carry the same weight in the minds of conservatives as the freaking New York Times, if you take the point, but to many on the right, it DOES have the same value, a fact that came out repeatedly in the election post-mortems. Breitbart? WTF?
Then there’s Fox News. Imagine how threadbare that network would appear without the slick motion graphics and the blonde newscasters? It would frankly look just like the Alex Jones podcast without the Fox-y ladies and professional art directors. Ever noticed how few live reports Fox does? Local newscasts get out of the studio more often than Fox does and many times, they’re using the same feeds as CNN, perhaps even licensing these feeds from their competitor. It looks like a news network and has all of the trappings and outer appearance of one, but is it really news that Fox offers its elderly viewers in between all of the Gold Bond powder and MedicAlert commercials?
In any case, my perception of the Conspiratards sub-reddit forum is that it represents (by its explicitly mocking name and irreverent attitude) a really, really interesting new development in conspiracy theory culture. Not merely a “get your head out of your ass, dude” place to vent, it’s actually a place where even the folks who troll it will inevitably get a dose of counter reality that will bounce off the back of their heads like a basketball of logic.
I can understand why people are Glenn Beck fans or Alex Jones diehards, but it doesn’t mean I have any respect for how their tiny minds process and evaluate information sources. Conspiratards on reddit looks to promote a modern—and necessary—form of media literacy, no more, no less. The educational system might be failing us, but take heart that we can still teach each other something.