For the millions who were enraged, disgusted, and shocked by the Capitol riots of January 6, the enduring object of skepticism has been not so much the lie that provoked the riots but the believers themselves. A year out, and book publishers confirmed this, releasing titles that addressed the question still addling public consciousness: How can people believe this shit? A minority of rioters at the Capitol had nefarious intentions rooted in authentic ideology, but most of them conveyed no purpose other than to announce to the world that they believed — specifically, that the 2020 election was hijacked through an international conspiracy — and that nothing could sway their confidence. This belief possessed them, not the other way around.
At first, I’d found the riots both terrifying and darkly hilarious, but those sentiments were soon overwon by a strange exasperation that has persisted ever since. It’s a feeling that has robbed me of my capacity to laugh at conspiracy theories — QAnon, chemtrails, lizardmen, whatever — and the people who espouse them. My exasperation is for lack of an explanation. I see Trump’s most devoted hellion, rampaging down the halls of power like a grade schooler after the bell, and I need to know the hidden causes of his dopey rebellion. To account for our new menagerie of conspiracy theories, I told myself, would be to reclaim the world from entropy, to snap experience neatly to the grid once again. I would use recent books as the basis for my account of conspiracy theories in the age of the internet. From their pages I would extract insights and errors like newspaper clippings, pin the marginal, bizarre, and seemingly irrelevant details to the corkboard of my mind, where I could spy eerie resonances, draw unseen connections. At last, I could reveal that our epistemic bedlam is as a Twombly canvas — messy but decipherable.
The punishment for my delusion was reading the entirety of The New Heretics by Andy Thomas. The latest project of one of the UK’s alleged “leading researchers into unexplained mysteries and conspiracies,” the book purports to “foster understanding of why questioners [conspiracy theorists] feel the way they do” while pandering to those whom Thomas also calls “truthers” or “heretics.” It is impossible to tell whether Thomas is aware of this duplicity, because The New Heretics is as coherent as a radio with a busted tuner, cycling between ungrammatical static, marbleless rambling, scientific illiteracy, and — if you listen closely — multiple references to Dictionary.com.
What is this noise trying to say? Thomas argues that the intensifying “polarity” in the discourse “between truthers and the mainstream” has eroded both parties’ capacity for “nuanced debate” over key issues, such as whether 5G networks caused the COVID-19 pandemic or whether QAnon was a false flag operation designed to “discredit Trump once and for all.” (One might expect a European researcher to investigate conspiracy theories outside the United States and greater Anglosphere, but for the most part Thomas confirms that the defining characteristic of American conspiracy theories is that they get all the attention.) Hoping to leverage his readership’s presumed distaste for this polarity, Thomas searches for compromises between consensus reality and the lunatic fringe. From aloft, can’t you see it? Between the fact that mRNA vaccines inoculate people and the belief that they install subdermal microchips for tracking purposes, middle ground!
Yet there is a sense in which Thomas’s doomed negotiation is nonetheless successful. Toward the end of the book, Thomas reveals himself to be a seasoned conspiracist, a retired crop circle chaser and fervent 9/11 truther whose impartiality cannot be sustained in considering “the numerous quandaries around the standard narrative of 9/11.” The revelation is, by then, unsurprising, and yet Thomas is still not what I expected from a conspiracy theorist. Upon entering the mind of such a figure, I would expect to find what DeLillo described as “world inside the world,” a hermetic, wholly private vision of reality. Yet, like a traveler expecting the exotic only to find he has circled back home, I saw in The New Heretics the familiar noise of our public discourse, which is managed by the very gatekeepers Thomas despises (the villains of his narratives are “the media,” “academia,” “social media companies,” and “officialdom,” generally). For a book dedicated to defending “alternative thinking,” The New Heretics depends to a surprising degree on conventional ideas: Young people are “snowflakes.” We are all too attached to our phones. The American Empire, like the Roman Empire, will soon collapse. Free speech is under threat. Music isn’t what it used to be. Artificial intelligence will change everything. It’s boring but also oddly reassuring. In fact, this feature makes Thomas’s book an invaluable paraliterature, because it so insistently reminds the reader that the contemporary conspiracy theorist does not seal himself off from the world but rather cannot shut it out.
Admittedly, this does not greatly improve the prospects of reconciliation between the mainstream and conspiracists. Thomas outlines a method by which a population might begin “rebuilding a model of reality from the bottom upward” through returning to the “very essentials” of our shared experience. As an example, he outlines how we might come to agree upon the existence and character of an apple.
Are we agreed that this is an apple? — Yes/No
If it is a pear and not an apple, it is placed aside, and the process begins again.
If it is agreed it is an apple, things proceed.
What color is the apple? Is it green? — Yes/No. Is it red? — Yes/No. Is it a
mixture? — Yes/No.
And so on.
After reading this passage, my exasperation pinned me to my chair. Thomas had somehow clarified its character perfectly. In a world overshadowed by immensely complex crises that demand cooperation across the human species, we are finding it necessary, as if we were toddlers, to identify fruits and colors. The resulting sensation was that of standing, alone and forlorn, at the junction of many burned and sundered bridges; I received a vision of how truly fucked we are.
The conspiracy theorist’s dogmatism often distracts from the objects of his skepticism, and it is the latter that I believe are more revealing. The ideas or events that provoke his strongest doubts show us what he flees, what he trades away so many mental comforts to avoid. This idea is integral to Kelly Weill’s Off the Edge, another book aiming to explain “why people will believe anything.” An expansion of her reporting on extremism for the Daily Beast, Weill’s investigation focuses on “the ultimate incarnation of conspiratorial thinking,” a superlative that is hard to deny — because the conspiracy theory in question holds that Earth is flat and that civilization’s nameless masters are hiding this from you for reasons yet to be determined.
The thing about the flat-Earth model (known more commonly as “flat Earth”) is that it is, in Weill’s phrasing, “observably wrong.” Weill writes that “perhaps the easiest way to debunk flat Earth is just to watch a sunrise or sunset. If you have a clear view of the horizon, you can watch the sun move above or below the curve, degree by degree as the day breaks or the night begins.” The obvious falseness of the idea that Earth is flat indicates that this incredible belief cannot merely be a matter of scientific ignorance. (Weill shows us a man so desperate to hold on to flat Earth that he “couldn’t look at a sunset, for fear it would remind him of his doubts.”)
To Weill, flat Earth is an especially ridiculous example of the dangerous ideas that circulate online and occasionally manifest in the real world. Nearly all the scholars of extremism Weill consults inform us that conspiracy theories cannot be properly understood as the consequences of stupidity or insanity but rather must be considered products of the social relations that determine what we allow ourselves to believe. Though we might wish otherwise, entering or exiting any given community — a church, a workplace, a society for alternative planetary science — necessarily entails adopting or relinquishing beliefs.
A thorough, sensitive reporter with an ear for the artful quote, Weill has spent a great deal of time interacting with flat-Earthers in their digital element (mostly in Facebook groups) but also visiting them at their events and conferences. Consequently, Off the Edge can be read as an amusing diary outlining Weill’s various ministrations to a community that she cannot understand or condone, even if she might have given it unintentional publicity when she first covered it on a lark. The book is framed around a flat-Earther named Mike Hughes, with whom Weill establishes a rapport. A year after she met him, Hughes shot himself skyward using a jerry-rigged “steam propulsion engine” reportedly capable of generating between eight thousand and fifteen thousand horsepower. It was February of 2020, and Weill watched the events transpire on the internet. When his parachutes failed to deploy, Hughes and his vehicle plummeted to the Californian desert with such finality that, as Weill puts it, “there was no need to call an ambulance.” This was the concluding tragicomedy of an intelligent, outrageously stubborn man whose DIY rocket was meant to enable his great ambition to “decide the planet’s shape for himself.”
The monomaniacal resolution to know something for oneself is partly understandable, especially because the internet has revealed just how little knowledge we singly possess. Online, the individual is constantly reminded that the consensus reality demanding his submission rests on an elaborate matrix of specialists, any one of whose expertise would take him another lifetime to acquire. This experience informs him that knowledge holds the power to shape reality and that he is virtually powerless. In an indispensable essay published in The Atlantic, librarian Barbara Fister reminds us that conspiracists “don’t simply distrust what experts say; they distrust the social systems that create expertise. They take pleasure in claiming expertise for themselves, on their own terms.” Perversely, someone comes to believe that Earth is flat by taking ownership over their picture of the world.
Weill finds this impulse at work long before the advent of the internet, in the very beginning of the flat-Earth movement around the middle of the nineteenth century. The intellectual grandfather of flat Earth, Samuel Birley Rowbotham, a huckster and socialist with a taste for nitrous oxide, codified the impulse in his Zetetic Astronomy. The pseudoscientific tract outlined a philosophy in which knowledge could be established, Weill writes, by “trusting only what one can personally observe with one’s own senses.” Weill’s most revealing discovery, zeteticism is an antisocial epistemology, a radical libertarianism of the mind, which helps explain the enduring connections she finds between flat Earth and alternative medicine, the sovereign citizen movement, vaccine refusal, and even Holocaust denial — all ventures predicated on the rejection of the institutions and practices underlying the social construction of knowledge.
Because this rejection is predominantly social, so, too, are its costs. In 2019, Buckey Wolfe, a QAnon follower and Proud Boy, drove a sword through the skull of his brother; he told 911 dispatchers, “God told me he was a lizard…Kill me, kill me, I can’t live in this reality anymore.” This is what it means to Weill for an idea like flat Earth to march its believers, lemming-like, over the edge. And yet the richest parts of her book suggest the impossibility that an idea might completely remove someone from society. Shortly after Hughes’s dramatic death, Weill begins “questioning how well I knew [him] at all.” She learns that Hughes retained a “public relations representative” named Darren Shuster, who “told journalists that Hughes had never been a flat-Earther — that the whole thing was an act of publicity.” Some of Hughes’s friends and relatives rebuke Shuster, though they differ in their estimations of how seriously Hughes took the idea of a flat planet.
Among the figures she studies, Hughes is Weill’s best candidate for a “true zetetic,” whose mission was at least unpolluted by petty social effects. So what does it mean that Hughes hired a cynical PR rep who would market him to wider society as “a great American daredevil?” Hughes’s afterimage, preserved in the memory of others, is that of the mythical American individualist: forging his own destiny, making his own mind, building his own rockets, but incomplete without social recognition for his self-madeness. For Weill, the horror of conspiracy theories is their capacity to isolate and destroy their human vehicles; often, she writes, “flat-Earthers are the biggest victims of their beliefs.” But the bleaker tragedy of Hughes’s life, the fate of any mind that seeks total independence, was that he never came close to escaping the gravity of the society he distrusted so much.
Weill’s historical excursions into flat Earth reinforce a desperately needed correction within the recent public conversation about conspiracy theories. During the Trump presidency, liberal pundits and technocrats ratcheted up their insistence that the internet — particularly social media platforms — had become a grand honeycomb of echo chambers where radical politics and conspiracy theories were programmed through confirmation bias, mis/disinformation, and algorithmic reinforcement. These dull analyses begged for critiques of their prosaic determinism (see Joseph Bernstein’s “Bad News”) and flagrant ahistoricism (see Nicolas Guilhot’s “Bad Information”). For those still interested in exploring the contribution of the internet to the conspiratorial psyche, as I am, the lesson was remedial: an account of conspiracy theories, even ones that emerge and die online, must address the social particularities and historical forces that produce them.
Historian Edward Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, founder of the better-known John Birch Society, provides a good opportunity to make such an acknowledgment in context of the United States. North America has long functioned as a colony of those banished for religious extremism, cultish attractions, and conspiracy theories — hence these sensibilities are still fruitfully appealed to in American politics, the conservative variety especially. A Conspiratorial Life relays the important, if by now belated, lesson that the conspiracism of Donald Trump, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene is not remotely anomalous to American society.
It is difficult to imagine a more paradigmatic modern conservative than Robert Welch, born in 1899 in Chowan County, North Carolina. A precocious reader with a “marked predilection for mathematics,” as one newspaper noted, Welch pursued a career in social commentary at the age of nineteen, although he would later see great success as a confectioner during the Roaring Twenties. In this period, he hatched a conservatism that championed “austerity, self-denial, and hard work.” When his company succumbed to its many debts during the Great Depression, Welch’s mind began grasping for scapegoats and oppressors. He entered politics and fashioned a career in bewailing America’s “drift toward collectivism and tyranny,” placing him among the crowded ranks of Republicans whose brains were positively melted by the existence of communism in the People’s Republic of China and the USSR.
The overarching implication of Miller’s book is that the conservative ideology of the twentieth century was always a few words away from rabid conspiracy theory. In Miller’s telling, Welch becomes an oblivious overachiever who excelled at disseminating effective propaganda but in doing so explicated what was designed to remain implied — a subtle potshot at moderate Republicans, a calibrated racist undertone — and revealed the cynicism of the whole game. (For this reason, William F. Buckley Jr. ultimately discerned that Welch was bad for American conservatism.) Indeed, Welch’s most infamous work was a likely apocryphal biography that expressed outright the fevered paranoia that Republican propaganda merely toyed with. The Life of John Birch allowed Welch to retroactively martyrize its namesake: an obscure, fundamentalist OSS agent killed by Chinese communist troops at the end of World War II.
Welch’s true “intellectual awakening” was marked by his introduction to Joseph McCarthy and the political paranoia that bears that senator’s name. Under McCarthy’s shadow, Welch would in 1958 found the John Birch Society. Its creation was one of the crowning achievements of anticommunism, perhaps the most virulent conspiracy theory in American history. Welch worried about what is often called “cultural Marxism,” though neither he nor Miller use the term to describe the suspicion that communists (often Jewish ones) were “propagating Marxism throughout the media, schools, Hollywood, newspapers, magazines, and other cultural organs.” As Welch aged, these nebulous claims were replaced by very specific allegations; he came to believe, for instance, that communists had “infiltrated the country’s public health departments,” where they introduced “fluoride” into our water systems to “enervate the hearts, minds and bodies of Americans to the coming communist occupation.”
Our presiding question is just as relevant in the past: How could people believe this shit? In this regard, Miller is not terribly helpful. Although he is disposed to “think” for Welch on numerous occasions, Miller insists on a caricature of his subject’s mind. He often depicts Welch as a true believer — or, variably, as a “dreamer,” a “romantic,” an “eccentric philosopher,” a “child at heart” — in the company of empty suits, someone naive to the rhetorical gamesmanship of his fellow conservatives. In certain cases, Miller cannot sustain this gullible portrait, forcing him to admit that “Welch’s rhetorical habits themselves became a species of dishonesty” or that “depending on his audience, Welch peddled in deception.” But these are begrudging admissions. Miller must cling to the narrative of Welch as an enigma; otherwise, he might have to acknowledge that the founder of the John Birch Society was an influential conspiracist but not a remarkable one. It seems that Miller refuses to acknowledge what Weill tacitly apprehends: that for all their heady self-reliance, conspiracists are just as prone as anyone else to modifying their beliefs in accordance with social pressures. That their minds are subject to social influence is the basis of their outrage, the very reason that they engage in the fantasy of a fully independent belief system.
An advantage of biographies so glutted with unorganized detail (A Conspiratorial Life does not justify its length of nearly four hundred pages) is their tendency to accidentally sketch the historical forces around their subject. The libertarian author Albert Jay Nock, observing Welch’s awkward demeanor and electoral failures, once called Welch a “superfluous man.” A seeming throwaway, the term does usefully evoke the kind of disappointment that spurred Welch’s most rash conspiracy theories. Unable to believe that President Truman could independently decide to fire General Douglas MacArthur for his defiant warmongering, Welch instead concluded that “MacArthur was fired by Stalin.” Likewise, Welch deemed President Eisenhower, a fellow Republican, a communist for his “unfair treatment of Germans at the Nuremberg trials” and his willingness (likely imagined by Welch) to agree with Nikita Khrushchev to a “disarmament scheme.”
Besides communists, bankers were the only other group who could reliably provoke Welch’s sense of personal superfluousness. One of Welch’s first published conspiracy theories asserted that “the creation of the Federal Reserve Agency…was the work of bankers to further their self-interest.” The cause of the Fed’s founding was almost the opposite, but Welch’s longstanding hatred of the “serpentine banking elite” and their regulators arose from the spiritual challenge that these institutions posed to American conservatism, particularly the idea of an autonomous individual. As his numerous dependencies are revealed to him, the microcosm of the conservative becomes a plaything of a great demon of many names (the federal government, Wall Street, the communists, the Antichrist, the New World Order) and many lairs (Washington, DC; New York; Moscow; Beijing; Brussels; Tehran; Davos). The conservative effortlessly becomes a conspiracist because he confuses his expanding vision of society with its infernal transformation. Wherever he casts his hungry eyes, he sees the world being devoured.
The proliferation of media since the industrial revolution is largely responsible for this sensation, and the conservative is not alone in feeling it. The world was always a Gordian knot of interdependencies, but now we can see it. Under the awareness of the world’s mounting complexity, regularly expressed in American literature of the 1960s, the dominant experience was of bewilderment. The sense of “atomization” and “disorder” (plus feelings of personal superfluousness) that Joan Didion expressed by way of Yeats’s “widening gyre” led naturally to the “hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning” and “intent to communicate” that Thomas Pynchon has his character see in a cityscape, the image of society. The chaos of experience in the twentieth century begged for conspiratorial organization.
So it would make sense that the internet, granting us a view of the world with untold granularity, has further aggravated the conspiratorial impulse — just not in the way that most critics of the internet argue. In Miller’s rather tortured epilogue, he portrays the internet as a charnel house for facts, where the “dark arts of conspiracy” corrupt otherwise wholesome people. Even Weill tiresomely blames the proliferation of conspiracy theories on “a sprawling, multitrillion-dollar technology industry that knows conspiracy [sic] is good for business.”
Believe it or not, Andy Thomas presents the most convincing account of how the internet adds new dimensions to the conspiratorial imagination. Contrary to the image of the internet as a foundry of unhinged certainties, Thomas reports that he often experiences it in precisely the opposite manner, as a deafening hurricane of competing ideologies and contradictory information, a “new kind of psychological space” in which it becomes “impossible to know what to believe.”
Without personal expert knowledge, in these times of fake news, fake fake news and alternative alternative facts, it is often impossible to be sure whether claims and findings regarding anything at all are true or not. We frequently find that some (genuine) experts claim one thing, while other (genuine) experts claim something else…
Those who value the stability of their worldview ignore this powerful effect, but I believe it is universally felt. Much as television instilled in our consciousness the sense of always being watched by an audience, and thus always performing, the internet marshals the full weight of human knowledge to constrict our every whim and conviction, pressing upon us the possibility that we could be wrong about everything. Seemingly inspired by this negative relativity, Thomas reports that he can “spend weeks” living in ideological indeterminacy, where he can begin “thinking one thing and then switch to the polar opposite for a few days and then back again — or to a completely different stance.” He admits that he must inevitably return to the security of his beliefs.
By continuing to reveal the world’s untamable complexity, the internet unmuffles an unbearable noise from which the conspiracy theory offers a refuge: a belief system that is more accessible, durable, and comfortable than any traditional ideology. But even these havens do not last. QAnon, flat Earth, and 9/11 truthism are already divided by heretics and factionalism. The noise erodes the veracity of any idea around which people can organize, because in an online environment they feel as if they must choose between two asocial existences — absolute doubt or utter derangement. No one would freely choose either, but these are the only options the internet presents to the mind, which, subsumed by doubt or conviction, eventually longs for the other extreme. Weill writes: “Some days, amid all this uncertainty, I feel quite like a conspiracy theorist myself.”
Perhaps we should. If we believe the labor of discovering the terrible truth of civilization belongs to the fallible individual, how can we be exasperated to find ourselves in a society of people proclaiming their own terrible truths? Though wild conjecture and sober inquiry are not equivalent, they both inherit from the broader culture an understanding of truth as a private treasure, found in obscure books, therapy, reflection, worship, or in the glare of a screen while the kids sleep. For that is the nature of the terrible noise the internet allows us to hear: innumerable voices, my own among them, screaming over each other to repeat the same lie. The truth is out there, and I alone have found it.