With the pandemic and a global uprising against racial injustice to be explained away, conspiracy communities are bleeding into each other, merging into one gigantic mass of suspicion.
A few months ago, at a time when it was still safe to have strange experiences in unusual places, I was handed a mysterious document. “ALLIANCES AND TRAITORS WITHIN THE TRUTH & UFO COMMUNITIES,” it read.
The document was a single, bright red sheet of paper, crowded with close-set black type. Different kinds of lines and arrows connected in wild formulations, linking George Soros with the Illuminati, various stars of the UFO community with their alleged handlers, the CIA with Alex Jones. The Pleidians—a race of tall, blue-eyed Nordic alien beings—connected with both Tesla and the president in ways I couldn’t quite parse.
This paper was created and handed to me by Dylan Louis Monroe, a player in the QAnon world and the creator of the Deep State Mapping Project, a one-man operation where Monroe creates dense visual maps of the supposed alliances he sees between various major players and world events. Monroe was at the New Age expo Conscious Life selling Q-branded t-shirts and promoting a YouTube show, I was there reporting, and both of us were thinking about the strange alliances and friendships that had begun to surface in various conspiracy communities.
“BE CAREFUL WHO YOU FOLLOW,” the document warned, in bold, at the bottom, just above a large black Q.
In the months that followed our chance meeting, the world buckled under the weight of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and the alliances got stranger still. Conspiracy communities that have previously only brushed past each other like schools of fish borne along on different currents are suddenly, abruptly, swimming in the same direction.
Take Larry Cook, whose evolving belief system has been playing out in a remarkable way on Facebook. Cook is the man behind the largest anti-vaccine group on the platform, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, which, along with his personal Facebook page, serves as a central clearinghouse for anti-vaccine misinformation.
In the months since the pandemic began, Cook has begun to claim that it’s a pretext for the mandatory testing, tracking, and vaccination that he’s feared all along. (There is no evidence that the U.S. government will impose mandatory vaccination for the coronavirus, even though it should.) He’s also started to turn towards people who can provide some explanation for what’s really going on, and some measure of hope: Cook is promoting QAnon ideas, sometimes dozens of times a day. (QAnon is an ur-conspiracy theory which, broadly, holds that Donald Trump and his allies are bravely fighting back on a number of fronts against a shadowy, Satanic Deep State.)
“I AM A DIGITAL SOLDIER,” Cook posted recently, along with two Q-related hashtags, part of an “oath” that the mysterious Q had recently requested that his followers post. (Disgraced former Trump advisor General Michael Flynn was among those who posted the oath.) Linking to a webpage that shares Q’s missives, Cook added, in another post, “Discover why we have a lockdown and mask requirements for the healthy.” (Cook didn’t respond to an email from VICE News.)
Cook isn’t an outlier. As Mother Jones recently noted, coronavirus and the general uncertainty of the times we’re living in have aided the spread of QAnon specifically.
But it’s not just QAnon. The strain of living in this particular time, with a dragging, devastating pandemic and a global uprising against police brutality and racial injustice, crashing together at the highest speed, has accelerated something that’s been going on for years. Call it the conspiracy singularity: the place where many conspiracy communities are suddenly meeting and merging, a melting pot of unimaginable density. UFO conspiracy theorists and QAnon fans are advocating for drinking a bleach solution promoted by anti-vaxxers. QAnon groups and Reopen America groups alike promoted Plandemic , a film clip jam-packed with conspiratorial claims about the causes and spread of COVID. The Freedom Angels, an anti-vaccine group based in California, are among the many such groups joining anti-lockdown protests, using language that feels heavily drawn from the Patriot movement: They’re calling stay-at-home orders “tyranny,” addressing their followers as “Patriots,” and positioning themselves as “a new civil rights movements.” (They urged people to burn their facemasks on July 4th, adding, floridly: “Join millions of Americans on Independence Day as we show all these BLUE STATE GOVERNORS, SWAMP DOCS, and DEEP STATE RATS ? how we feel about their latest ORDERS, DICTATES and MANDATES to wear our muzzles again.”)
More mainstream internet stars, as several outlets have noted, have also been drawn in: Lifestyle influencers are promoting COVID conspiracy theories, while the virality-seeking teens of TikTok are discovering a new obsession with Pizzagate. Sex trafficking conspiracy theories—all of which are tinged with Pizzagate and QAnon influences—seem to have an especially broad appeal: Recently, a pair of Arizona influencers promoted a baseless rumor that the furniture company Wayfair was trafficking children.
The trend towards a kind of disturbing unity is distilled in the hashtag #Covid911, backed by a lot of powerful players in both anti-vaccine and QAnon circles. It holds that what we’re living through—the pandemic and the protests against police brutality alike—is all a massive hoax, designed to sway not just the 2020 elections but usher in the New World Order. Not long ago, Joe M., a major QAnon promoter, released a video, which is still up on multiple platforms even as it’s marked as “false information,” calling the pandemic, the protests, and, of course, the push for nationwide mail-in voting all part of a “coordinated irregular warfare insurgency with multiple aims,” perpetrated by the Deep State. The nine-minute clip throws in a dizzying cocktail of claims touching on virtually every conspiracy theory of the current moment, managing to claim that the murder of George Floyd was “mysterious” and not what it seemed, that social distancing was perhaps a pretext to halt grand juries so that President Obama couldn’t be investigated for spying on the Trump campaign, and, of course, that “violent paramilitary group Antifa” had been given free rein by Democratic mayors to wreak havoc on city streets.
“COVID-19 is being sold as a natural event,” Joe M. intoned, over grim violin music and a shot of Nancy Pelosi taking a knee in kente cloth. “But we see now it is an attempt by enemies of humanity to hold onto power. After November, they stand to lose it all. But they will do everything to keep the crisis alive, and the people in fear.”
The last minute of the clip features shots of news reports about a feared second wave of coronavirus. The implication is that that, too, is part of the program to keep us afraid, and shouldn’t be acknowledged or believed.
People contain multitudes, and our ability to believe in several conspiracy theories at once is nothing new. We’ve seen hints of a conspiracy singularity before, most memorably in the worlds of Milton William Cooper, the author of the dense, chaotic, and totally unreadable conspiracy classic Behold a Pale Horse.
Cooper—before he died in a shootout with sheriff’s deputy trying to arrest him for aggravated assault—was successful in assembling a broad coalition of anti-government zealots. Behold a Pale Horse claimed to draw on his military service in the Vietnam War to expose a variety of evil deeds perpetrated by those who wanted to bring about a New World Order.
But Cooper also successfully weaved in UFO conspiracy theories—that the U.S. military shot down mysterious craft to capture alien technology, for instance—as well as medical ones, including claims that both AIDS and Hepatitis B were bioweapons loosed on the public by the CDC. As Cooper biographer Marc Jacobson noted, some of these theories gained a lot of credence among Black Americans and in the hip-hop community.
Behold a Pale Horse became a surprising mainstay across a lot of different communities, one of the only things you’d be just as likely to find in an Afrocentric bookshop in New York as at a militia rally merch table. It showed that UFO researchers and heavily armed self-proclaimed patriots had some kind of common language and view of the world, or at least places where their worlds overlapped. One devoted fan of Cooper’s radio show was Timothy McVeigh, who went on to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Author and political scientist Michael Barkun notes in his book 2003 A Culture of Conspiracy that McVeigh also developed a fascination with UFOs around the same time, visiting Area 51 a year before he perpetrated the bombing. On death row, Barkun writes, McVeigh obsessively watched the film Contact, about a brave government scientist chosen to make contact with extraterrestrials.
Conspiracy theories that the government is hiding what it knows about aliens, or the existence of a secret “strawman” bank account assigned to each U.S. citizen, live in the same place, theoretically speaking. In his book, Barkun referred to these realms as the “domain of stigmatized knowledge.”World News
“That domain, as we have seen,” he wrote, “Is made up of rejected, outdated or ignored knowledge claims, regardless of subject matter. It contains material drawn from revisionist history, pseudoscience, alternative medicine, occultism, new and alternative religions and political sectarianism. Despite these differences of focus, all share certain overarching similarities: the disdain or disinterest of mainstream institutions, along with the common outsider status conferred by that disdain or disinterest, and a consequent suspicion of the institutions that have excluded them.”
Barkun’s book is broadly about the approaching conspiracy singularity, focused especially on the places where far-right, anti-government, and UFO circles had started to merge. And the same fusions Barkun observed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, between far-right conspiracy theorists and UFO believers, could also be seen within the 9/11 “truth movement.” Conspiracy theories about 9/11 brought together the military-industrial complex-critical left and the Alex Jones-tinged right, as well as what Barkun called “the prophecies of Nostradmus, UFOs and conspiracy theories about the Illuminati.” The bedfellows were strange indeed: As a profile of Alex Jones from 2011 observed, “It turns out that the world of paranoia is round, and 9/11, with its billowing smoke and miles of video and a cast of thousands, is the terra incognita where left and right meet, fusing sixties countercultural distrust with the don’t-tread-on-me variety.”
In other words, alliances and overlaps are common, and not new. “There’s always been cross-pollination,” Michael Wood told VICE News. Wood has a PhD from the University of Kent and is an expert in conspiracy psychology. Along with his co-authors Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton, he published a 2012 paper exploring the phenomenon of people who simultaneously believe in conflicting conspiracy theories: that Princess Diana is alive and was killed by MI6, for example, or that Osama Bin Laden both died before the U.S. military raided his compound and is still alive after those same military forces supposedly killed him.
The ability to believe two things at once—even completely contradictory things—is based on an underlying level of “higher order” thinking, the paper argued, an overriding belief that can make even conflicting ideas make sense. Simply put, it’s the centralized belief that conspiracies and hidden deceptions underpin the world and guide human events.
“The idea that authorities are engaged in motivated deception of the public would be a cornerstone of conspiracist thinking due to its centrality in conspiracy theories,” the authors wrote. “Someone who believes in a significant number of conspiracy theories would naturally begin to see authorities as fundamentally deceptive, and new conspiracy theories would seem more plausible in light of that belief.”
This being so, it’s still true that conspiracy communities used to have some degree of separation. Their conventions were held in different hotel ballrooms, and targeted different audiences geographically and socially. Conspiracy theories were spread in newsletters and in-person meetings; they were narrowly targeted and often somewhat underground, part of a legitimately fringe and countercultural narrative.
But now the internet is the largest hotel ballroom of them all, and the novel coronavirus pandemic has forced a lot of people into a set of universalizing life circumstances. We’re all trying to make sense of the same massive global event, which seems to drive an urge towards a grand unified theory of suspicion. And with everyone using the same global platforms, conspiracy communities seem to influence and inflect each other far more rapidly. What we have today is more of a mass, a merge of conspiracy theories combining in ways that make their individual contours harder to make out.
For some people invested in multiple conspiratorial beliefs or communities, Wood said, “the evidence you’ve based your beliefs on is more like a negative argument, what you believe didn’t happen.” The actual conspiracy theories themselves “aren’t that important,” he added; they are really just “manifestations of this underlying suspicion and mistrust.”
That can take on some odd forms. In a 1954 study cited by Wood, Theodor Adorno found that German anti-Semites tended to believe that Jews were both too withdrawn from mainstream society and overly eager to participate in it. The “higher order” thinking at work was anti-Semitism and every negative belief derived from that, even when they didn’t logically cohere.
Similarly, Wood wrote, in more modern conspiracy theories, “distrust of official narratives may be so strong that many alternative theories are simultaneously endorsed in spite of any contractions between them.”
Today, alternative theories abound: that the coronavirus pandemic is both a hoax and a dangerous bioweapon unleashed by China; that Tom Hanks is dead—executed for being part of the pedophile Deep State—and alive in witness protection; that he is dead and replaced by a body double. All these theories have been promoted by the same guy, a QAnon fan named Tommy G.
At the same time that the conspiracy singularity starts to take shape, we’re seeing a distinct collapse between the fringe and the center. Nowhere is that more visible than in the increasing prominence of QAnon in relatively mainstream Republican politics. As of July, the left-leaning organization Media Matters has found 63 current and former Congressional candidates who are open and enthusiastic Q fans, some of whom, like Mary Joe Rae Perkins in Oregon and Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, have already won their primaries. (To make it to Congress, Greene still has to defeat the second-place winner, John Cowan, in an August 11 runoff election, and is facing significant condemnation from the state GOP.)
Another useful idea referred to by Barkun, the author of Culture of Conspiracy, is the “cultic milieu,” a term coined in the 1970s by the British sociologist Colin Campbell, a sort of “cultural underground,” Barkun wrote, that’s made up of a variety of “rejected knowledge” disdained by the mainstream. The cultic milieu, Barkun wrote, is “wary of all claims to authoritative judgment,” and receptive “to all forms of revisionism, whether in history, religion, science or politics.”
It’s not a stretch to see how that domain of stigmatized knowledge extends to how people process current and ongoing events, how groups of people with seemingly nothing to bind them together on the surface might find themselves seeking explanation, order and meaning in the same places.
In fact, there’s been language for this phenomenon for a long time. People deeply embedded in the overlapping worlds of conspiracy theory tend to refer to themselves as being part of the “truth community.” And as its members come to a new and mutually reinforcing view of just what that truth is, the rest of us would do well to pay attention to just what it is.