In many ways, this moment feels like the age of the conspiracy theory—one in which “wellness” schemes are the grift that keeps on giving, a majority of Americans believe there is a “deep state” meddling with national policy, and a gun-toting man actually showed up to a Washington, DC, pizza parlor to bust politicians he thought were running a child sex trafficking ring in its basement. These beliefs are boosted through the ubiquitousness of social media, and the companies that created these networks are facing increasing pressure to crack down on “fake news,” conspiracies, and disinformation. Even with some successes on this front, the broader problem has become insidious, and efforts to stem the flood of this brand of information are akin to fighting a mythological Hydra.
While writer Anna Merlan started her book on conspiracy theories months before we ended up with a conspiracist-in-chief in the White House, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power arguably comes at just the time it’s needed the most. Merlan had been covering conspiracy theorists—subcultures were a specialty of hers—for alt-weeklies in Dallas and New York for a few years when she went on a conspiracy-themed cruise for Jezebel in 2016 at the suggestion of a commenter on the site. It was her first real immersion in the world of conspiracies. “I realized that a lot of people were there not just to have a fun kooky time, but were there because they were really deeply in debt and were trying to get out of debt with the help of these sort of self-styled financial experts, or they had children who they believed were injured by vaccines and were seeking the help of this one particular doctor,” Merlan says. “I started realizing that a lot of people were united in a belief in conspiracy theories because something bad had happened to them, and they were sort of looking for answers that mainstream explanations for things didn’t provide.”
That led to a years-long deep dive into the world of conspiracy theories. The result is a meticulously researched tome, documenting incidents as early as the burning of ancient Rome and the many conspiracy theories that plagued the 2016 election. Mother Jones talked to Merlan to understand the roots of this increasingly powerful phenomenon and discuss how inequality begets conspiracy theories, how racism is inherent in many of them, and why empathy is important when writing about believers.
Mother Jones: Can you lay out what we’re talking about when we call something a “conspiracy theory”?
Anna Merlan: When we talk about a conspiracy theory, I use a few different definitions kind of spliced together. It’s a belief that a small group of people are working in secret against the common good to create harm, to affect some negative change in society, to seize power for themselves, or to hide a consequential secret. That’s a conspiracy theory—the belief that those things are going on. And so an actual conspiracy is when a small group of people are actually working in secret against the common good. And as I write about in the book, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between what is an actual conspiracy and what is just a conspiracy theory.
MJ: You tend to write about conspiracy theorists with a lot of empathy. I think it would have been really easy to write this book with a lot of snark and sarcasm.
AM: There are a bunch of reasons for that. One is that statistically, most Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. People who have access to a lot of education or are extremely media savvy are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories, but they’re not immune. So I don’t see myself as particularly different from these people. I like to say that we’re all in the pool, some of us are just in a deeper end of the pool. That was part of the reason to be empathetic. There’s so much writing about conspiracy theories and subcultures that is really snarky, and I just think there’s been enough of that. I don’t think I need to add anything to that genre.
Some of it too is that I write about this a lot. I think people who get involved in conspiracy theories are often doing it in response to social and economic inequalities. There are conspiracy theories about the health care and financial systems because they’re extremely opaque, and people have trouble making sense of this and people feel that they are unjust systems. The anti-vaccine movement, as an example—I am very frustrated by the misinformation peddled by the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, but I am very sympathetic to parents who buy into that rhetoric because really, what is more urgent to us than the health of our children? And what do we care more about than keeping them safe?
MJ: Is there a key element that has to be there to spark a conspiracy theory? I’m inclined to think about them as a relatively new phenomenon tied to the internet, rather than something that has always existed.
AM: Conspiracy theories are really old. Some conspiracy theories I write about literally go back to ancient Rome. One of the earliest ones we know about was this idea that the fires in ancient Rome that burned most of the city were actually set by the Emperor Nero so he could rebuild the city to his liking.
I think the main thing that we see that really helps a conspiracy theory catch on is when it provides a satisfying explanation for something. There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there that are extremely fringe and stay really fringe. The ones that tend to enter the lexicon are ones that seem like they provide a meaningful explanation to a lot of people that is in line with their beliefs socially and culturally and politically about how things work. People tend to believe the ones that are already in line with their views.
MJ: So how do you think conspiracy theories have shaped American culture and politics specifically?
AM: One thing I write about is that conspiracy theories have always been with us and that they got a lot bigger as the federal government got bigger because people rightly began to distrust this entity that got larger and larger and more and more opaque. One thing that we see really commonly in American history is that there’s this very strong relationship between conspiracy theorizing and suspicion from the public and actual conspiracies carried out by the government. That relationship got especially stark in the ’60s and ’70s, with the disclosure of a bunch of secret programs by the FBI, the CIA, and the military. I write about that time period as having created a trauma that we’ve never really gotten over.
MJ: I was really struck by the second chapter where you write about how conspiracy theories that are particularly prominent within the black community are often anchored in very real horrors from the past. Can you walk me through one of those examples?
AM: There are a lot of conspiracy theories that are unique to black Americans, and they tend to be really rooted in historical trauma and real historical events. So the example that I start off with is the conspiracy theory that during Hurricane Katrina, the levees didn’t fail, that they were actually bombed, and that poor parts of New Orleans were destroyed on purpose. We don’t have a lot of evidence of that—the evidence is a lot more persuasive that the levees did just fail. But what we do know is that that specific conspiracy theory is rooted in a real event—a 1927 decision to dynamite levees outside of New Orleans, the logic there being that they were going to flood low-lying areas and save the city itself. But that decision displaced people, it killed people, it triggered one of the largest migrations in American history, and it created a lingering sense of suspicion that maybe the government would do this again.
MJ: There are a few moments in the book in which you confront people who hold anti-Semitic beliefs and you talk to them about your own identity as a Jewish woman. How did you calculate risk in doing that?
AM: I think it’s important to note that I wouldn’t sneak into a gathering of neo-Nazis; I wouldn’t go see some of the groups who have been linked to murders of Jewish and gay people. I wouldn’t feel safe doing that. But in a gathering like the one I was at in Kentucky [where neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered privately before a rally in Pikeville], where they clearly wanted the press to be there, and they were clearly very eager to be observed and written about by the mainstream press, I decided that that was a pretty good time to allow people to talk to me about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for a while and then share that I was Jewish and see their response. So it is a calculated level of risk and I definitely also recognize that I have the privilege of being able to go into a space like that and pass unobserved for a while and see how people behave.
AM: I thought about that a lot. Medieval historians have pointed out that Pizzagate looks a lot like this concept of the nocturnal ritual fantasy, this idea that evildoers meet late at night in secret and do bad things or abuse children. The sense that I have is that there are some things that have become archetypal images of hatred or prejudice, and they tend to recur in different ways over and over. Certainly, we see that with anti-Semitic, racist, anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, that they’re all rooted in the idea of people as inhuman others who are trying to invade or take over. It really is the same hateful ideas taking on new forms. They’re incredibly durable.
MJ: But what do you think makes the pedophilia fixation so prevalent?
AM: I think a primary thing about really virulent conspiracy theories is that they create a pathway to hatred and blame. They identify the enemy and they say, “This is the person that you need to hate,” or “This is the person or the group that you can pin the world’s ills on.” And so one reason, especially on the far right, that the accusations of pedophilia have been recurring so strongly is that it is the worst thing that we can imagine. There is really nothing worse or less socially acceptable than child sexual abuse. And so it is a way to say that these are not just your political opponents—these are evildoers, these are your enemies, they’re barely human, and you can do whatever you need to do to vanquish them.
MJ: It serves as an easy justification.
AM: I think it’s an easy justification, and the stakes keep getting higher, the accusations keep getting more and more serious. And it’s hard for me to think of one that could be more extreme or more damaging than accusations that someone is a pedophile.
MJ: Do you think that the United States was particularly vulnerable to the flood of disinformation around the 2016 election because of our rich history with conspiracy theories?
AM: It seems obvious that we were. We can say that because we know that similar disinformation efforts seem to have been attempted by elements within the Russian government, for instance, to interfere with other elections. We know that there were similar disinformation campaigns in Germany, for example, and they were not successful. The Macron leaks ahead of the French elections were also not successful. They barely made a ripple, and this was despite the fact that people on the far right in the US got involved too, and were using their considerable social media reach to try to impact that election.
MJ: Do you think there’s anything that people fundamentally misunderstand about the role of the internet here?
AM: I wouldn’t say that it’s the internet broadly, so much as it is social media specifically. The internet has been around for a while, and it hasn’t necessarily made fringe conspiracy theories more mainstream. But I would say that social media does a couple things. First of all, it makes every source of information look the same. When you put a link on Facebook to anything, it looks like any other link on Facebook. So before Facebook started fitfully flagging things as contested news or misinformation, it was very hard to visually decode them as false. It’s also that platforms like Twitter create easier avenues for conspiracy theories to go from the fringe to the mainstream—it’s just a lot faster, the pipeline is a lot more streamlined and also, journalists are a lot more likely to see conspiracy theories that are being circulated on Twitter, and then we’re more likely to write about them. And there’s still some question about whether or not that actually helps them spread. I’m not sure what I think about that idea [that news coverage of conspiracy theories can help them spread], but I’ve certainly heard it suggested.
The other thing I would say about the role of social media is that it allows conspiracy theorists to have access to the subjects of their conspiracy theories, which for instance, for Seth Rich’s family, was an extremely devastating experience. It allowed people who wanted to promote false ideas about their family member’s death to have direct access to them and try to contact them. And it’s the same with families who lose someone in a mass shooting.
MJ: Right, I found the examples you used from the Sandy Hook families to be devastating.
AM: The parents who lost their children in Sandy Hook have suffered this secondary tragedy that has gone on for years and years and years, which is the peddlers of these conspiracy theories [the main one being that the children were crisis actors, part of a scheme to allow the government to take away Americans’ guns] trying to contact them, trying to harass them using photos of their children, and promoting false theories about their children’s death using things that they themselves in some cases put on the internet like intimate family photos.
MJ: What responsibility do you think social media companies have to curb conspiracy theories?
AM: I really struggle with this a lot. I don’t feel like I’ve come up with a good response to it because, for instance, Lenny Pozner, who is a Sandy Hook dad, has talked a lot about the need to better regulate the internet. And I completely understand why he thinks that. At the same time, the idea of social media companies like Facebook—who have a really terrible track record of flagging this information—having even more power makes me really, really nervous. I think that we have created a problem that is really hard to solve, because we have created such efficient pipelines and it’s hard for the pipelines to carry only fresh water and not also garbage and sewage. At the same time, I think we have seen pretty clearly that in some cases, de-platforming some particularly virulent people has worked. I think Alex Jones’ reach is less than it ever has been, he’s getting more criticism for his ideas than he ever has. For somebody like Milo Yiannopoulos or Gavin McInnes—these are people who got really famous because of platforms like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube—and not having the same access to those platforms inarguably makes it harder for them to spread what they’re trying to spread.
MJ: And what responsibility do we have as journalists?
AM: That I’m clearer on. I don’t think that there is any harm in writing about conspiracy theories, as long as we are writing about them to debunk them. I think that just being snarky about them actually does more harm, so I think that if we’re going to write about them, we try to debunk them, and we try to figure out where they’re coming from. A lot of what I talked about in the book is the need to figure out an even better sense of what the pipelines are that funnel really ridiculous stories from the outside to the mainstream. So I think as much as we’re talking about the content of conspiracy theories, we also want to talk about the pathways that they travel on.
MJ: What surprised you the most in reporting out this book?
AM: I think I was really surprised by the empathy I felt for a lot of people and also just how durable their beliefs were even in the face of a lot of conflicting evidence. I sort of knew that, but it was one thing to really see it firsthand. I write in the book about Sean David Morton and his wife, Melissa, who were charged with tax fraud because they had conspiratorial ideas about how the IRS worked. And they sold fraudulent tax schemes to people and they used them themselves. And it really wasn’t until the last day of their trial that I was sitting with Mr. Morton and I could see him realizing that his schemes were not going to work, and even then he was sitting there with me outside a courtroom where he was about to be convicted telling me, “What I’m saying is true, and it should work in court, but they just refuse to do it.” I came to see conspiracy theories as much more akin to religion than I had previously.
This interview has been edited and condensed.