Why are so many of us falling for insidious conspiracy theories?
Joe Madden delves into a deep dark world
It’s a bright, freezing day in Manchester’s Heaton Park and David, 55, is telling me all about how much he loves drinking his own urine.
“Just before Christmas I did my first-ever fast. Guess how many days I managed to go without solids?”
“Thirty-two!” he beams. “The urine stops the hunger and gives you loads of energy. See, light comes from our front, and dark from round the back – because everyone’s a mixture of light and dark, aren’t they?”
“And so you think, why am I consuming all this food, then? Who’s really benefitting? There’s a huge conspiracy to make us purchase food we don’t need – food that changes our DNA.”
Feeling like we’ve lost our way a little, I put my question to David again: What brings him here today, to this flat-Earther meet-up in a municipal park café?
“I’m not massive on the flat-Earth stuff, to be honest,” he says. “But there are threads tying into it that do interest me. Did you know, for example, that we were on the wrong side in the Second World War?”
At this point we’re blessedly interrupted by Jamie Brown, organiser of this gathering and a local celebrity within the flat-Earth movement. He’s just done one of his daily YouTube livestreams and is ready to chat.
Heading outside to escape the hubbub, Brown and I pass tables abuzz with chatter about flat Earth, chemtrails, freemasonry, psychedelics and the corporate suppression of perpetual-motion technology. At least 40 flat-Earthers have gathered here today, and while a handful of them look as you might uncharitably expect – poorly groomed men, banned from their local playground – the crowd is surprisingly varied: there are dads, lads, hippy nans, metalheads, gym bunnies. They’re all palpably happy to have found each other and to discuss this stuff without being mocked or derided.
We’re outside, squinting in the sub-zero sun. I’m keen to ask Brown about flat-Earth theory’s most puzzling aspect: who would be behind such a ruse and what would they gain from it? “Well, it’d be power,” says Brown. “The power to make us think we’re on a spinning ball and that human life is the random result of some accident billions of years ago; that we’re insignificant and there’s no intelligent design at work.” He believes in God, then?
David Icke claims the earth is controlled by shape-shifting reptiles from another dimension… he sold out Wembley
“Not necessarily. I mean, this – life – could all be a simulation. I don’t know. It’s beyond my comprehension. Whatever’s behind all of this would have limitless powers and a mind far beyond anything we could understand.”
I’m still none the wiser. Brown seems unwilling to be pinned down on specifics, or even to fully commit to flat-Earth theory (“We might be wrong!”). He is clearly suspicious of me – which is to be expected, given conspiracists’ hardwired mistrust of the ‘MSM’ (mainstream media). We circle around a little more – me confused, him guarded. Our chilly conversation finally warms up when I tell him I’ve been shocked by some of the abuse I’ve seen him receive online.
“All that hostility, that vitriol – it only spurs me on. Because if what these people believe is so self-evidently true, why do they need to defend it so desperately? Why all the anger?”
There are lots of people like Brown out there, defiantly espousing troubling ideas on Facebook, in pubs, at suddenly awkward family gatherings. And as varied and out-there as these ideas are, each one slots neatly into one of three categories, as defined by political scientist and conspiracism expert Professor Michael Barkun.
At the lowest end of the scale is the event-conspiracy theory, which posits the idea that Shadowy Forces are at work behind the scenes of individual events: the JFK assassination, the moon landing, Princess Diana’s death. Small-fry, relatively speaking.
Levelling up, we have the systemic-conspiracy theory, in which an entire country, or even the entire planet, is under the control of Shadowy Forces. See the ‘deep state’ conspiracy popular among Trump supporters – the belief that Donald’s heroic #MAGA efforts are being thwarted by the combined invisible trickery of the FBI, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Finally, the big boy: the super-conspiracy theory, which combines multiple event and systemic conspiracies to create an epic narrative with supernatural or extraterrestrial Shadowy Forces at its centre. Think David Icke, who claims the Earth is controlled by shape-shifting reptiles from another dimension. A fringe opinion, you might think, but nope: Icke sold out Wembley Arena (capacity: 12,500) in 2012, and a 2013 survey found that four per cent of Americans – more than 12 million people – readily believe his lizard-people schtick.
“The rising popularity of the super-conspiracy is very concerning,” says Marlon Solomon, whose one-man show Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale details his experiences of researching and refuting the likes of Icke. “At that point, you’re basically living in The Matrix. On the one hand it’s a comfort blanket: you ‘know’ that all the information you receive is a lie, so there’s no point in engaging with the world. That’s strangely freeing.
“On the other hand, it completely magnifies the scale of evil at work on planet Earth, making life far more terrifying than it needs to be. It’s a petrifying comfort blanket.”
Born in the late Eighties through interactions between commune-dwelling hippies and right-wing preppers, super-conspiracism was the direct inspiration for The X-Files, “in which the men in black and the aliens are in on it together,” says Solomon.
The X-Files’ success led to a late-Nineties boom in movies and TV shows built upon vast conspiracies and righteous paranoia: we had Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, Sandra Bullock in The Net, Will Smith in Enemy Of The State and Men In Black. By the time 9/11 happened, millions were primed to angrily question the official version of events. A 2016 survey found that just over half of Americans believe their government deceived them in some fundamental way about 9/11.
“The 9/11 truth movement is a huge gateway,” says Solomon. “It’s virtually a religion. And because you need to believe a whole range of conspiracies to make that one theory work, you’re hooked in from there.”
Solomon speaks from experience, having briefly fallen under the spell of 9/11 truthism in the Noughties. “I’d use the classic line: ‘I don’t necessarily believe this stuff – I’m just asking questions!’ But in doing so you’re putting forward what you know damn well are your answers. It’s a method conspiracists use to voice unsavoury views and sinister opinions without taking responsibility for them.”
Fifteen years on, Solomon is now more fascinated than embarrassed by his dalliance with truthism. “I claimed not to believe, that I was ‘just asking questions’. So why, when I went on holiday to Turkey with three close friends, did I end up getting very, very angry and having a horrible stand-up row when they refused to entertain 9/11 being an inside job? And at that point I’d only watched two or three videos, a couple of weeks earlier. Goes to show how strong and fast-acting an elixir it is.”
No longer confined to shonky messageboards and photocopied pamphlets, modern conspiracism is slick, lucrative and readily available. Amazon Prime and Netflix give a platform to documentaries such as Loose Change and Zeitgeist: The Movie – the Star Wars and Titanic of conspiracy movies. And with politics increasingly dominated by extremist voices, ideas that would’ve once been the ramblings of a wet-trousered bus-weirdo are now widely presented as fact – via The Canary, Evolve Politics and Skwawkbox on the left, and Breitbart, Infowars and Fox News to the right.
The undisputed stars of this brave new world are David Icke and Infowars’ Alex Jones. With his hatred of imperialism, Israel and America, Icke is essentially far-left; Jones’ macho gun worship and raw Islamophobia positions him far-right. But while they have their differences – Icke is all about the space lizards, Jones is more of a Satanists kinda guy – they actually agree on a great many things. Brexit, for one.
“Both Jones and Icke campaigned for Brexit,” says Solomon. “Because the EU is part of the conspiracy, the one-world government they believe we’re moving towards.
“They can claim that all elections are rigged and invalid, yet still somehow campaign for Brexit and believe in the result when it goes their way. They don’t feel the need to answer their own logical fallacy.
“Neither of them, though, believes Russia used psy-ops to meddle in the US election and get Trump elected – it’s the one conspiracy theory they’re somehow unable to believe.”
While Jones recruits the angry and disenfranchised through cathartic displays of rage, Icke uses subtler methods. “He never talks about lizards and aliens on his Twitter feed,” says Solomon. “It’s all anti-imperialism, anti-America – standard far-left stuff. And it gets people excited, it draws them in.”
Adding yet more mirrors to the funhouse, Icke and Jones are themselves the subjects of conspiracy theories. “They’re widely viewed as stooges put forward by the CIA to discredit conspiracy theorists,” says Solomon.
“It stems from the fact that they’re very popular, but also regarded as ridiculous by the wider public.”
For many conspiracists, there’s no such thing as being too paranoid.
On the surface, a lot of it is luridly entertaining, even darkly funny. Amateur rocket scientists launching themselves skywards to prove the planet is flat; Icke’s insistence that Earth is a hollowed-out space station run by inter-dimensional lizards; Jones’s screeching over “Satanic abortion orgies” – you’d be forgiven a chuckle. But dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent that so much of the wackiness is underpinned by malevolent, age-old bigotry.
Almost every modern conspiracy theory has its roots in The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, a 1903 forgery purporting to detail secret plans for Jewish global domination.
Its Russian publishers claimed it comprised the leaked minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders plotting to subvert non-Jews’ morals through infiltration of the world’s media and economies. As writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “If ever a piece of writing could produce mass hatred, it is this one.”
“Within five years of publication it was a global phenomenon,” says The Open University’s Dr Jovan Byford, who studies the psychology of conspiracy theories. “It was translated into dozens of languages and was outsold only by the Bible. It was unstoppable.”
The Times exposed The Protocols as a vicious hoax in 1921, but that did little to slow its rampant spread. Notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford paid for half-a-million copies to be printed and distributed in the US, while Adolf Hitler had it taught in German schools as historical fact. It weaponised anti-Semitism and conspiracism so successfully that it continues to shape the worldviews of millions today – whether they’re aware of it or not.
“I’ve spoken to a few flat-Earthers - all were Holocaust deniers”
“So many of the ideas you see in modern conspiracy theories are lifted directly from The Protocols,” says Dr Byford. “With no evidence to present, conspiracists can only ever use earlier conspiracists’ work for references when creating new theories. Follow a trail of citations by, say, David Icke back far enough and they’ll invariably lead to anti-Semitism and The Protocols.”
Even something as seemingly eccentric-yet-harmless as flat-Earth theory has this seething hatred of Jews at its core.
“I’ve spoken to a few flat-Earthers – all were Holocaust deniers,” says Solomon. “They’re very casual about it – they’ll just come out with it.” I think of urine-drinking David and the startling moment he went full-Nazi.
“The key thing about flat-Earthers isn’t that they believe the world is flat,” Solomon adds. “It’s that they believe they’re being lied to about it. It’s a super-conspiracy. And if we’re being lied to about everything, there’s no reason to believe the Holocaust ever happened. Factor in the fact that Jews are so often painted as being ‘behind’ conspiracies, and there’s even less reason to believe.
“Not all conspiracy theorists are anti-Semitic, but the deeper you go, the harder it is to avoid anti-Semitism. On the far-right you have to pass through Islamophobia to get to the anti-Semitism these days – but journey far enough right and it’s still totally there.”
So, say you have a friend who’s being tractor-beamed into the world of conspiracism; perhaps they’ve started ‘just asking questions’ on Facebook. Is there anything you can do to pull them back?
“Well, one of things about conspiracy theories is that they’re irrefutable,” says Dr Byford. “If you point to a lack of proof, the conspiracist responds with, ‘You’re so naive. You can’t see the evidence because they’re so good at hiding it!’ It’s… unproductive trying to reason with them.”
It’s also hard to convince someone they’re being ridiculously paranoid when there demonstrably are Shadowy Forces at work in the world right now. Russian bots pose as Brummie mums on your Twitter feed; VW sets your car’s computer to cheat emissions tests; dossiers on paedophile MPs vanish into thin air; Cambridge Analytica boasts of warping elections using sex, bribes and stolen data. It can feel like every other corporation, politician and billionaire views you as a disposable pawn in their sinister global chess game. In the face of all this, embracing conspiracism can offer a sense of empowerment, of staying one move ahead of the lizards.
“It is extremely difficult to extract someone who’s committed to conspiracism,” says Solomon. “If you have a friend who’s not gone too deep yet, Myles Power produces fantastic debunking videos on YouTube. But there’s precious little debunking material out there – there’s no money in it and people generally won’t watch videos that disprove something they’re committed to believing.”
And if said friend has fully crossed over? “Well, then there’s really nothing you can do,” says Solomon. “Sorry. Grim, isn’t it?”
(Images: REX / Shutterstock)