Whats different about modern conspiracy theories?
As long as we have told stories we've had conspiracy theories. So no, it's not that weird that there are people out there who believe America is run by the deep state, and there's a child sex ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlor. Yes, the stories are weird. And they're not true. But you're always gonna find them. What is worth wondering about though is the impact of modern communications on all of these wild beliefs. Are we pouring gasoline onto theories like pizza gate and Q in on and keeping them burning when they would otherwise Peter out on their own. If these theories take root in enough mines will we eventually start to find that some of those minds are willing to go further than others. And if that happens do we end up with now. America right now, are there more believers and conspiracy theories than there's ever been before. Does it just feel that way? And are they getting more dangerous or do we just hear about it more often? And if we've always had conspiracy theories than what's the original one where did that story come from. Jordan, heath Rollings. And this is the big story and a Merlin is a senior reporter at Gizmodo media group. She is the author of Republic of lies American conspiracy theorists and their surprising rise to power and is your country. More obsessed with conspiracy theories than anywhere else in the world for does it just feel that way right now. I don't think that it's safe to say that we are the most obsessed with certainly feels that way, and we are certainly uniquely able to broadcast are conspiracy theories because of our sort of stranglehold on the world media. Yeah. Well, why do I know about pizza gate, for instance? Great question. Why do you know about pizza, you know, about pizza gay because a because it is a very colorful and people could hardly resist writing about it. And e because pizza gate was an outgrowth of the frenzy around the two thousand sixteen US presidential elections, which everybody sort of couldn't help but be pretty invested in. And so for those of us who blessedly have not dug into this thing. I think we all kind of know that like pizza gigs ists, and it's a conspiracy theory in the United States. But how does something like that get started? Where did it come from pizza was a conspiracy theory that a bunch of high level democratic politicians and political operatives were involved in a child sex trafficking? Ring that was headquartered in the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington DC. That's a short version what we know. And there was a really amazing investigative report about this that ran in Rolling Stone. And on a website called reveal is that pizza gate seems to have been born from Facebook post written by a Missouri attorney name's Cynthia Campbell and basically Cynthia Campbell with convinced that the investigation into Anthony Weiner, the ex congressman who is being investigated for sending sexually explicit text. Messages to a fifteen year old was in fact, going to uncover this enormous sex trafficking scandal. Volving dozens and dozens of high level politicians and what we know too. Is that Cynthia Campbell's Facebook post got picked up and spread around by mixture of real people. And what we think are probably bought accounts and so- pizza gate because of this impossibly strange sort of mixture of factors gained incredible speed and got to the point where it became world-famous. It became disgust in every major media outlet. And at the end of this time someone showed up out the pizza parlor with a gun. What happened? So the gunman was from North Carolina, and he had been watching YouTube videos about pizza gate, and he started texting friends, we know this from court documents and said that it was making him sick. And as he sat there watching YouTube and spiraling. He decided I need to do something about this. He started texting his friends and asking them if they were quote up for raiding a PetO ring and he said possibly sack. Profiling the lives of the few for the lives of many standing up against a corrupt system that kidnaps tortures, and rapes babies and children in our own backyard goes on like that. So he left his own children sleeping in bed and climbed into the car and drove three hundred and fifty miles to Washington DC walked into comet ping pong pizza place with a gun to guns actually won an air fifteen and fired a couple shots which luckily did not hit anyone. We don't know what went through his mind. But we know that he rampage to the restaurant looking for this basement where he thought he's children were that as it turned out didn't exist comment, ping pong didn't have a basement and eventually you gave up but down his guns stripped off his sweatshirt went outside and surrendered. How does somebody end up taking a theory like this so seriously and having the belief in it embedded, so firmly in their mind, I guess that leads them to do this like I can understand people bullshitting on the internet. That's what they do. But how does it cross that line and become something that that is real to so many people? We have a lot of a whole massive sort of conflicting studies about who believes in conspiracy theories. And why and it is this really potent mixture of your social, cultural, political background your level of educational attainment, and sort of how well the political system and the country that you live has worked for you. You know, a lot of people who feel really disaffected or disenfranchised are more likely to buy into conspiracy theories. So in the case of the pizza gate gunman. You know, we don't know quite what was going on with him. We have a few hints. We know that he was deeply religious. We know that he was a little bit naive about news coverage. We know that he was again radicalized is the only word for it by repeated viewing of these propagandistic YouTube videos, but it's really hard to predict who is going to sort of dabble in conspiracy theories as a hobby on the internet, and who is going to be driven to extreme action in the way that. This man was you went to an event that was for pizza gate truth IRS, I guess if we want to call them that maybe not as serious as as the span, but people who really believe this stuff enough to show up in real life. What's it like to beat these folks, I would say that among the pizza gate, folks? And a lot of other folks, I met I was really struck by the way that their beliefs were giving sort of meaning and purpose and urgency to their lives. You know, these were people who seemed like ordinary people to me who became completely embroiled in what I think in some ways was a very exciting quest. And we see this now with on conspiracy theorists to where they really feel like they are part of something really major that they are helping to expose something of global importance example of one of the people that you met either at that rally or or in your. Course of reporting on conspiracy theories that that sticks with you as a kind, of example of who falls for this stuff. Well in America, we know that about fifty percent of us or maybe one in three believe, and at least one conspiracy theory. So, you know, like most of us, quote unquote fall for this a lot of us have an investment in conspiracy theories. The people I met who are in sort of the deep end of the pool for instrument, for instance, a woman named angel that I met at pizza eight rally were people who felt directly affected by what was going on. They felt directly affected by corrupt politicians. They felt directly sort of fended by the idea of sex trafficking and a sex trafficking ring. And they felt that they were personally obligated to do something about it. It's interesting that you mentioned that a lot of us kind of believe, or at least dabble in one conspiracy theory or another because I was gonna ask you about the difference between conspiracy theories. And conspiracy without the theories kind of because the one that my mind always goes to the moon landing or the extra shooter for JFK, and there's like long lists of actual evidence that people engage in you know, the that the flag was Steph or in the case of JFK the evidence from the grassy knoll and all that kind of stuff. But there's actually something that they're based on here. Whereas you just described to me that the restaurant didn't even have a basement, you know, are we getting further out there. I actually don't think that we're getting further out there in America. And I can I'm qualified to talk about America. I'm not as qualified to talk about on their countries. But we know that in America conspiracy theories, and they're sort of grip on the country tend to wax, and wane, and we tend to see them kind of flare up at times of like, really extreme social upheaval and social change. And we also know in America specifically that there is such a keen interest and investment in conspiracy theories because there are so many actual conspiracies throughout. American history. If a conspiracy theory is the suspicion that a group of people are working in secret against the common. Good conspiracy is when they're actually doing that and among other things Americans have examples of spying disinformation and really outrageous acts by the CIA NSA, the FBI against both foreign leaders in US, citizens, which has created this incredible amount of suspicion and trauma and paranoia that I came to believe we're never really going to be able to get rid of one of the things I found interesting in part of your book is sort of the origin of like the original conspiracy theory. Can you tell me about the great great great grandfather of pizza gate and all these other theories? So there are historically going back. Many hundreds of years conspiracy theories about shadowy groups gathering at night underground to meet in secret and participate in ritual child abuse, torture and murder to sort of solidif-. By their bonds. There's middle. Medieval historian, named Michael Barbas. Add who pointed out the pizza gate looks a lot like what is called the nocturnal ritual fantasy which is a phrase coined by norm cone, another historian. So the nocturnal ritual fantasy is this idea of these shadowy groups meeting in secret rate, and one of the most sort of her Nisus and vicious examples that this is the blood libel, which is an accusation levied against Jews beginning in the middle ages that they were kidnapping and torturing Christian children to use their blood in our Matza meal for Passover. So the idea that evil people gather secretly to abuse children is something that has been with us for a really long time. And it tends to recur over and over how much of this involves money, not necessarily maybe for the people who believe in this stuff, but for the people who are pushing it so they're definitely an interest in monetize thing conspiracy theories. And I would argue that that is. Is something that is relatively new. There is more of a pathway to monetize conspiracy theories than there used to be obviously, the most successful example of this is Alex Jones, Alex Jones built a pretty sophisticated media platform, and he also separately started a store called info wars life that are these vitamin supplements some of which are harmless and some of which are not, but all of which are very directly tied to this idea that his listeners are literally under siege physically as well as spiritually and politically. And so that they need, you know, vitamin supplements to protect them from the enemy. So we see monetization of conspiracy theories that way, we also see sort of an army of would-be Alex Jones is trying to monetize things like their YouTube their Twitter periscope. We see these people who seem to have an idea that they can turn their social media audiences into real financial gain. And in some cases, they seem to be succeeding how much of this can I blame. Social media for I feel like asked this question for a lot of things. So I haven't different view about this. Then, you know, like some conspiracy theory, researchers that I really respect I think social media has a fairly big role because it allows more people to see information that they would not otherwise seen and it has a way of flattening every source of information making it look the same. So Facebook has tried to roll out these initiatives to flag disinformation, but it has been very sort of inconsistent and confused and crucially it did not happen until after the disaster of the two thousand sixteen elections and all the misinformation that we know was flowing through those. So I would say that I think social media has done a lot to promote things. It's also done a lot to bring conspiracy theories to the attention of journalists. So that we write about them which is both a positive because we do bunk them, and we write about where they came from and a negative in that perhaps we do also aid in their spread. It's really hard to tell. So I think this. Media is an enormous factor. Here you mentioned the misinformation around the two thousand sixteen election, and we have an election up here in Canada this year. So we're seeing some of that where's the line because like you said pizza get kind of spraying out of the mess around the two thousand sixteen election, and then there's a line the kind of drifts over towards perhaps credible. Sources that say things that may be happened in maybe didn't. And then you've got more opinion based journalism and at the other side of the spectrum is the actual facts. How do you tell the difference between conspiracy theories slash misinformation slash just opinion based political writing? Yeah. I mean, it's incredibly hard to tell. Sometimes what is it credible source information? I am somebody who writes for an opinion based journalism outlet, Gizmodo media combines opinion and journalism. I would argue that we do not spread misinformation we never had but have, but certainly not everyone would agree with me about that. Right. So some of what you believe to be true or false sneer misinformation. The the real story has to do with where you fall on the political spectrum. But we also know that there are genuinely divisive polarizing news sources that work really hard to exploit divisions in American life. We do know that. But denting them can be really really difficult. I was my next question is how do you fight this? Is there a way to sort of start walking back some of these more outlandish conspiracies, or do you have to kind of wait for it to wax, and wane? Like, you said, I would argue and I understand that. This is not a popular argument that the way to address conspiracy theories the civically in American life is to build a more just transparent and free society. Because so many of the conspiracy theories that we hold as Americans have to do with a sense of being locked out of a very opaque, political and financial system and healthcare system. I would also say and people don't like this either that there are always going to be conspiracy 'they. Series and some amount of misinformation, I think that is part of having a vibrant environment of free speech and free expression free exchange of ideas. So what we need to figure out is how do we put conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation sort of back where they usually are for the more stable parts of our history where they are part of the discourse that they don't do rail. It were there any theories in the course of reporting this book that you found yourself intrigued by or getting attracted to I mean, I went into writing this book believing that aliens are probably real. And so I still believe that. Yeah. Why are liens real? We have to end the podcast with this. Now, I would say that we have a number of pretty good arguments for believing that aliens are probably real, and we probably do not know everything that the world's governments know about alien technology or alien vegetation. So aliens are probably real because the idea that we are completely alone in the universe is. Statistically unlikely. Right. We also know that both the governments of the US and the UK at the very least have had a really keen interest in trying to identify UFO's and figure out what they are and study technologies that they believe might be alien technologies, or at the very least technologies whose source here on earth has not yet been identified, and we know that in part because at the end of two thousand seventeen just to name one example out of dozens a secret department of defense program was revealed that was doing just that was studying possible alien technologies. So that's one that is pretty noncontroversial. For me, though. Of course, you know, there are a lot of permutations of it that I don't necessarily believe this is fantastic because I came into this interview expecting to get everything debunked. And now I have something that I can go on YouTube and watch videos about what is the most. Unexpected thing you learned or found well reporting this book, this is a really prosaic example. But. I was one of my chapters is about redemption theory, which is a branch of sovereign citizenry that essentially tries to get out of paying taxes. Like, it's it's essentially a belief that the government is holding secret money in your name. And if the do the right set of legal maneuvers, you can get access to this secret Bank account that's held by the government, and you can in some cases, get out of paying federal taxes. So the thing that surprised me about this is that there is a whole army of IRS agents who are devoted to investigating these people and trying to charge them with fraud. Because in a lot of times, redemption theorists end up committing tax fraud. But that those IRS agents use fake names and fake identities in order to investigate which I thought was fascinating. They have reasons why they do it. But at the same time, it is something that directly feeds people's paranoia about the financial system, and the IRS and the US government. So that was to me is literally a conspiracy theory investigating people who believe in. Spiracy fairies. Thanks so much for taking the time for having me. Anna Merlin senior reporter at Gizmodo media group and author of Republic of lies that was the big story for more from us at over to the big story, podcast dot C A and check out some of our other episodes or suggest one you'd like us to cover feel free to find us on social media at frequency pods on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and on Twitter at the big story, F P N. And as always everywhere, you get your podcast. We're there to from apple Google the Stitcher to Spotify. We wanna rating and a review Claire Broussard is the lead producer of the big story. Ryan Clark and Stephanie Phillips are associate producers and Lisa Nielsen is our digital editor. And she's who you're talking to. If you hit us up on social media. Thanks for listening. I'm Jordan heath Rawlings. Enjoy the long weekend. We'll talk to you Monday.