Map without a Territory

Unpacking the conspiracy theorist's mindset

2020 was a banner year for conspiracies. As crisis after crisis struck, the algorithm-fuelled growth of imaginative and ludicrous claims reached a frenzied peak, ultimately exploding into mainstream discourse via the forever-infamous January 6th Capitol Hill attack. But while this particular bit of violence and hysteria revolved around the cult of Q, the conspiracy mindset in the American populace is far from limited to just that particular strain. 

By late March of ‘20, someone I know--a prominent and respected member of the local community where I live, a person who is by any measure intelligent, ambitious, and educated--began posting and resharing fantastical ideas about the pandemic. In real time, by the day or sometimes by the hour, I watched as she slipped into a post-logical fantasy world. And did everything in her power to bring others along with her.

The tone she struck in her posts was haughty, indignant, enraged, excoriating readers for falling for mainstream narratives, even while many of her claims seemed to cancel each other out. In one post, she would claim that there was no pandemic at all. In another, she’d claim the pandemic was actually caused by 5G radiation. Then claim the virus just isn’t all that serious. She made fun of mask wearing. Bill Gates came up a lot.

There’s no real need to cover the actual content, as it’s irrelevant anyway. Ultimately it’s not about content, but mindset. 

Some commenters on her page tried initially to talk sense into her or disprove her claims by linking to reputable news sources. Or expressed disgust and disbelief that she was spreading misinformation. A few, however, thanked her every single time she posted for doing the “hard work” of getting “the truth” out there.

As mainstream journalists began covering these topics, many people, understandably, were shocked, expressing amusement or disbelief that anyone could believe such things. Adherents to these post-reality worlds were ridiculed and held in contempt. It felt important to distinguish them from the rest of us. I mean, they must be simply stupid, right? Like, how dumb do you have to be? How is it not possible to see that these claims are so obviously false? 

While the cause of the “viral” nature and rapid escalation of post-real conspiracy narratives can be easily and immediately tracked back to the “attention mining” business models of Facebook/Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube--whose attention-generating algorithms lavish rewards on the most attention-getting posts--there still remains the more fundamental question of where the conspiracy mindset comes from.

What makes someone vulnerable to this phenomenon?

I can’t claim the authority to answer that question definitively, though I do have intimate knowledge of the mindset of a conspiracy theorist, because I was raised by one. And later, briefly, became one myself.

For as long as I can remember, my father--a loving, supportive, and caring man--has been a devoted, hardcore Believer in the conspiracy narrative promoted by the John Birch Society. What the narrative of this radical libertarian group boils down to, as I understand it, is that the United Nations is a front for a global communist conspiracy, hatched by a cabal of bankers working in sync with high-ranking government officials, whose overarching aim is to subvert our nation’s sovereignty in order to create a borderless, one-world communist government. The Council on Foreign Relations has a big role to play here. And literally every single social program, as well as things like gay rights and the legalization of abortion, is given as evidence of an incremental but unstoppable march to communism being carried out by financial and governmental elites across the world.

It’s this march to communism, devotees believe, that George H.W. Bush was referring to when he brazenly uttered the phrase, “The New World Order.”

To be clear, I’m not writing this to ridicule my father’s beliefs. He has a right to believe in whatever he chooses, as do you and I. Rather, I’m writing this as a kind of catharsis, as it comes from a place of immense sadness. Not only did my father devote an incredible amount of time and energy to this cause, it also inserted an immovable wedge between us that in many ways has fatally crippled our relationship. 

As I was growing up, my father would freely pile his political commentary onto me or any other family members who might be nearby. I learned early on to simply sidestep such discussions altogether, as any disagreements would instantly erupt into heated words and shouting. One Christmas, for example, because he felt I “needed some heroes in my life,” he got me a JBS “book of heroes,” which included among its storied ranks the war criminal, Augustin Pinochet. Instead of objecting, I simply left the book behind when I left the house and returned to the college that, he believed, was actively brainwashing me.

Every activity, every newsworthy event, even a random social security office we might pass in the car, would generate some kind of critical commentary that would be impossible to engage with. Because the only real way to do so would by necessity have to be on his terms, on account of the fact that our individual, world-defining narratives, like two parallel lines extending off into infinity, could never meet. 

There was no room to debate the merits or drawbacks of something like Medicare, quite simply because in his world it simply functions as a cog in the communist conspiracy. What merit could there possibly be in that?

Decades passed like this, with politics, social issues, and anything even remotely controversial delicately skirted around at holidays and other family functions. Eventually, enough time passed that I got to the point where I’d nearly forgotten his views, or had convinced myself they must have softened by now. 

This illusion was shattered when the Black Lives Matter movement kicked up. As massive protests turned to riots, on June 6th, D-Day, he forwarded an email along, a practice I had begged him (successfully) to stop years prior. This particular email came from the desk of a California-based preacher of the southern evangelical school, who put forward an unbelievably superficial, connect-the-dots comparison of BLM to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. The rioters were depicted as the second coming of Hitler’s brown shirt fascist enforcers, while also arguing that Hitler’s ideology included, and by fascistic necessity promoted, deplorable “communist” values like gay rights and universal healthcare. That’s right, fascist authoritarianism was coming, and it was bringing gay marriage and universal healthcare right along with it.

When you’re not steeped in this kind of bald misinformation, it’s jarring to say the least when it’s thrust upon you. Not only jarring because of the obviously ludicrous assertions, but also on account of the fact that someone you care about believes these things, and is forcing them on you in an attempt to override your own autonomy and worldview--which has been developed and refined (but obviously not perfected) over years of conscious reading, thinking, and discussing. 

I wrote back with one final attempt to insert some sanity into the dialogue, and his reply came back with the same communist conspiracy narrative that I’d practically memorized by the age of 14. 

It became clear to me then. There was never going to be a reconciliation

--

When I first learned about my dad’s conspiracy leanings, it was way back in the ‘90s, a time when it took real devotion to be a conspiracy theorist. My father read the thin JBS magazine that showed up at our house every month, he went to actual real-life meetings in poorly ventilated rooms where people discussed these topics, he organized and recruited new members, and he even produced and starred in his own cable access show with two buddies to get the message out.

In those days, there was no Facebook algorithm that would pick up on controversial, “engaging” content or groups and start spoon-feeding them to the masses. If you wanted to be in the thing, you had to really be in it. Which meant putting in the work. For most people, that would offer all the deterrent needed to keep from engaging with fringe ideas for long, thereby preventing these same ideas from escalating into wide-scale disinformation movements.

Imagine coming across a JBS magazine, feeling a little curious about it and wanting to know more, only to then find yourself eyeball-to-eyeball in an overbright room with the three other people in your town who are into it. Those three people, with their evangelical excitement, forceful zeal, and boiling-over rage, would be a frightening experience for most. And offer all the incentive needed to never return.

That was my experience, at least, when I got drawn into a similar movement in college. 

College was the first time in my life I’d ever felt free to think about new ideas, ones that might run counter to the way I was raised, which was as a conservative Republican. In the 2000 election, for example, I blindly voted Republican down the ticket. To my credit though, I left the presidential boxes unticked, as I couldn’t get myself to vote for Bush even then.

My freshman year, I was strongly drawn to a professor in the philosophy department who forcefully challenged ideas across the political spectrum in a way that I’d simply never encountered before. I was hooked, and immediately declared philosophy as my major without much regard to my future career, assuming the details would work themselves out later.

This particular professor spoke out against the rise of neoliberalism, which was a concept I neither understood or had even heard of. But at the same time, I was intrigued by the notion that there might be better or different ideas about running the economy, ones that weren’t reliant on the abstract mysticism of free market fundamentalism. This was also not a concept I really understood, but I had seen firsthand how my hometown and the greater midwest had come under extreme duress throughout the ‘90s. Wide-scale loss of jobs, emptied out factories, darkened main streets--all while big box stores and chains rapidly converted the countryside into an archipelago of cement fortresses and parking lots.

As I expressed interest to my professor, he encouraged me to attend a small, on-campus meeting featuring a friend of his, Phil, who was an organizer for Lyndon LaRouche. And so I did.

The LaRouchian narrative echoed and incorporated many of the ideas I’d heard growing up, but with the outcomes completely flipped. There was indeed a cabal of conspiratorial bankers, originating in Italy and now working in concert with England’s ruling class, with the end goal of enslaving all of mankind. But in this narrative, it was unfettered capitalism that was the fearful result, not communism. And whereas JBS demonized FDR’s New Deal, LaRouchians saw it and its resultant social programs as a conscious effort to counter this conspiracy’s power.

According to this narrative, England has been attempting to retake America since we declared independence, and it still is. Which is why they unleashed The Beatles on us as part of the “british invasion,” which was an organized, concerted attempt to distract and degrade us with mind-numbing pop culture. 

When I was taught this, I stopped listening to anything but classical music for about a year. In response, my older brother bought me a John Coltrane album, because, he said, at some point “you might have a girl over, and you’re going to need to put on something other than Bach.” (He was wrong about the first part, making the second part superfluous).

I also remember a great deal of discussion around (fraudulent) Newtonian physics vs. the (enlightened) physics of Leibniz. Opposition to Nazi Germany’s economic approach, which incorporated concentration camps as an essential part of its businesses. But the notion I remember repeated the most was that we were “rapidly approaching the onrushing collapse of the paper economy,” an argument that would be bolstered very shortly by the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Although, no real “collapse” of the greater economy ultimately happened and life, as far as I could tell, more or less went on as before.

The more into LaRouchian ideas I became, the more isolated I became from friends and family. I felt I knew something they didn’t. Something crucially important. The world now made sense to me and I couldn’t just go on pretending otherwise. Not with the end of life as we knew it rapidly approaching. 

Superficial conversations became uncomfortable and taxing. I was unable to relax or have fun. This shit was deadly serious, and I felt the people around me were keeping themselves willfully ignorant. The logic follows, therefore, that I felt the right course of action would be to simply jettison them and move on. This seems to me the exact type of progression needed to become a bought-in cultist and active conspiracy theorist.

At a time when I felt powerless and confused, anxious about the workings of the world and my role in it, this narrative provided what seemed to me a sure foothold. By putting complex events into a digestible narrative with coherent inner logic, I then had footing from which I could process world events, understand the root of the problem, and thereby seek to enact a solution. 

Simply put, it was a way to make sense of the world, and a way to give my life meaning. More than anything, this is what I believe is at the heart of the conspiracy theorist’s mindset. A desire for control, autonomy, and meaning--most of which has at this point been consciously stripped from us, as our individual agency has been superseded by the global ‘free market’ economy,  which ultimately transfers political power from local concerns to multinational corporations. 

Anyone who feels personally powerless will sooner or later latch onto something that makes them feel less so. Why some travel down this road longer and further than others, I can’t presume to know, but what stopped my personal runaway train on a dime was the fact that I actually went to a LaRouchian conference, and was confronted with the face-to-face reality of being around the people who attend such events. 

There was no robust internet back then, no social algorithms. If I wanted to really get into this thing, I would have to physically go and be in it. I’d even, somehow, convinced my roommate to join me. 

After classes ended on a Friday, we drove through the night from Ohio to somewhere near D.C., stopping at some point in a parking lot along the way to try to sleep. When we finally arrived and went into our hotel room (which had been paid for by Phil or the organization itself, it was unclear who), we discovered an older man wearing only khaki pants sitting on one of the beds. His name was something like Jeb, or Red. That’s how and when we learned we’d be sharing our room with two other people. And Jeb or Red was eager, alarmingly so, to discuss the state of the nation and LaRouchian ideas. We, on the other hand, were simply exhausted and surprised, unpleasantly so.

We met up with Phil and he introduced us to some younger folks in the movement, who gave us a quick rundown on how the weekend would go. There were going to be talks, loads of them, all scheduled to run for hours at a time, as well as all-hours late night mixers. I can remember attending one of these talks in a huge room; it probably sat hundreds, maybe a thousand, people. As the speaker droned on about who knows what, his computer repeatedly froze up and lagged. He joked that it was, pejoratively, a “Newtonian computer,” which got big laughs the first time, and so he rode it hard, repeating it countless times throughout his hours-long talk.

Beyond that “joke,” I remember exactly nothing from the contents of the talk, or any other talk I may have attended. After putting in such great effort to get to the convention, I went to sleep that night (sharing a bed with my roommate, and with two strange men sharing the one next to ours) frustrated, having learned nothing. I was no closer to having clarity about the “onrushing collapse of the paper economy.” I was still hopeful, however, as the next day was the big event: a four-hour talk from the man himself, Mr. Lyndon LaRouche.

As you might suspect, this event was a colossal letdown. Perhaps I was too young or too much of a rube to grasp the information, but I could find no real electrifying or clarifying concepts. He seemed to me to be speaking in circles. The room was hot and stuffy. I started staring at the clock and fantasizing about the hands accelerating forward. 

We had been strategically seated directly behind two younger members, I’m sure as an attempt to ingratiate us into the group, and as LaRouche spoke these girls seemed to be hardly listening. They continually scanned the room, giggled, and talked among themselves about who was in attendance. The contents of the speech seemed to be of no real importance.

Finally, after three and a half hours of talking, the speech wound down and it was time for the Q&A. I thought, okay, perhaps a pointed answer to a direct question will bring some clarity. During one audience member’s rambling question, I remember him repeatedly imploring LaRouche to give him hard answers that would hit him “in the back of the brain.” I was hopeful. But he once again spoke only in doddering, repetitive circles.

After the event, Phil pinned us down in the hallway. He was pressing us to go to more talks. He wanted details about what we were doing next. 

My roommate and I had grown uneasy.

It dawned on me then that he had a stake in us that went far beyond an open invitation to “learn more.” Getting us to attend had been a major coup for him, requiring an investment of time, energy, and money. Now he wanted to close the deal and capitalize on his investment by bringing us in lockstep with the movement. More than that, though, it was clear that he ultimately wanted us to recruit other younger members into the group.

But we’d had enough. Back in our room, we hastily packed our bags and, poking our heads out of the door to be sure nobody would see us, booked it the hell out of there. 

Once we were back in the car and safely pointed back to Ohio, I felt giddy with joy. Relieved. We laughed our asses off all the way back. 

We were free.

But, ironically, the thing that ultimately freed us from the movement was direct, physical engagement with the thing itself. 

It’s worth asking and deeply considering what the outcome would have been had all of my engagements been purely digital, spoon-fed at all hours to my phone and computer via the machinations of profit-seeking algorithms. With repeated exposure and uncritical ingestion from the comfort of my bedroom, who knows what ideas may have caught my attention and how radicalized my thought processes could have become. 

I realize that I’ve equated the LaRouchian movement with a cult, and I also realize that may be unfair, though it’s certainly not uncommon. In all honesty, I’m not sure what they were up to back then, and I have no idea what they’re up to now, especially since their leader has passed. 

The last time I remember seeing anything about them was around 2010, when I lived in New York. Their organizers would routinely set up tables in high-traffic areas and display oversized posters of Obama with a Hitler mustache. Whatever you think of Obama, and there’s certainly loads of policy one can take issue with from his administration, a comparison to Hitler is so far beyond the pale as to be easily dismissed outright as fringe lunacy. 

Safe to say, I never engaged, though I was indeed morbidly curious to hear the narrative they were selling. Instead, I’d simply walk past, and sneak a glance at the young organizer holding up pamphlets. 

Could’ve been me.

--

Make no mistake about it, we are facing a crisis today. A nation that can’t even agree on the basic reality of the situation at hand is ill-suited to solve any of the glaring problems we face. As media commentators have pointed out endlessly, we’ve become hopelessly polarized, but in my opinion that doesn’t do real justice to our situation.

Political polarization implies a common ground from which two sides have departed, or perhaps different philosophies or ways to approach solving a problem; problems that we could possibly have at one point held in common as being an actual problem. For example, acknowledging even the existence of a fast-spreading virus, ideally coupled with a basic acceptance of non-controversial attempts to remedy it.

But in our country, there is simply no common ground to depart from. When all the content we consume on “our” social media channels is relentlessly geared toward achieving a permanent lock on “our” attention, and which is backed up by highly partisan news outlets with the same goal, the end result is a kind of cultural death spiral that can end only in disaster and suffering--as we’ve seen, and which is now undeniable.

To believe that targeting individuals or groups on these platforms is any kind of fix is a delusion. It might provide some short-term relief, but it does nothing whatsoever to solve the actual problem, which is the media ecosystem itself, and which itself is self-perpetuating on account of the business models and the concentration of power in the handful of billionaires behind them. Without addressing those two aspects, any other remediation attempts will be at best short-lived; at worst, abused and authoritarian, creating more and deeper crises down the road.

We have a window now to correct the situation at hand, but we must act quickly. And our solutions must come from a place of understanding that media companies, social or otherwise, along with every other corporate power, have been given the great privilege of existing. This privilege has been granted by us, the American people, and we’ve done so with a non-negotiable demand that they exist to serve our best interests. 

Media companies, social or otherwise, as their business models make quite clear, seem to believe the situation is reversed--that we exist to serve them. They believe they have consented to provide us with wonderful “free” services, which essentially function as a granular surveillance system for multinational corporations, and that we should thank them for being so charitable--even as they sit on ever-growing mountains of cash generated by our very own posts, likes, comments, and shares.

That this is unworkable and incompatible with representative democracy, which by necessity demands a population of voters with the ability to at minimum discern basic reality, seems to me quite obvious. That there is a growing, bipartisan chorus of politicians and individuals demanding regulation and antitrust action around this issue is promising. 

My hope is that we will not take a glancing blow at these companies or be distracted by their shallow, blatantly misleading efforts at self-regulation. Repairing the dysfunction they have unleashed within our culture will take generations to correct. Only by striking at the heart of their business model, with a clear-eyed understanding of who exists to serve who, will a true remedy be found that’s bold enough to allow us to even begin that process.