Six Questions with Thomas Milan Konda, author of “Conspiracies of Conspiracies”
The viral spread and increasing normalization of incendiary conspiracy theories have been one of the most dismaying and dangerous trends in recent American political life. The QAnon conspiracy is most prominent of today’s Internet-borne fringe theories: its influence has even reached the seats of national governmental power, with at least ten current Republican Congressional candidates expressing support for it. We spoke at length with Thomas Milan Konda, author of Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusional Thinking Has Overrun America—called “the most detailed genealogy of American conspiracy theories yet written” by the American Historical Review—to gain some perspective on our current conspiracy crisis.
The QAnon conspiracy is increasingly in the news these days—a formerly fringe phenomena that has now wormed its way into the mainstream. How does its rise fit in with what we know about how conspiracy theories work?
How conspiracy theories “work” is really two questions: what is their appeal and how are they spread? Their appeal is always the same, and in this regard QAnon works the same way its predecessors did. Its three-part argument is the one that has always shored up conspiracy theories: (1) An insidious, powerful elite (2) secretly manipulates our various institutions from behind the scenes (3) in order to control, enslave, or destroy the good people like you and me. The simplicity of this argument makes it appealing for people who find real explanations for social or political changes too complicated. It also promotes a sense of self-righteousness. And it is so all-encompassing that it can explain everything.
Like its predecessors, QAnon has created an alternate reality with the conspiracy as its central feature. It is this alternate reality that constitutes the “theory” in any conspiracy theory, and it provides its believers with their framework for understanding events. The QAnon reality is filled with radical environmentalists pushing their climate change hoax, experts trying to control us in the name of saving us from a bogus pandemic, politicians determined to take our guns away, and, tying all this together, those sinister forces waging war on White Christian Americans (i.e., the good people like you and me).
How is this alternate reality spread? Believers like to think that a conspiracy is being exposed by a mysterious insider—QAnon himself—who is in a position to know what is really going on. In fact, the QAnon reality is spread on rightwing websites and through orchestrated campaigns to flood social media with the QAnon take on the news. Some of this is the work of sincere believers, but most of it is cynical and manipulative. As the QAnon conspiracy theory has worked its way into the mainstream, its perpetrators have been more able to use the traditional political system to spread their message. The recent Republican “convention” was a textbook example of this when it told viewers that a conspiratorial “they” were planning to eliminate the suburbs. If we have any luck, that convention will be the high water mark of “respectable” conspiracy theory peddling—and not a precursor of things to come.
Do you see QAnon as an extension of the kinds of conspiracist thinking we’ve seen in the past, something new, or a hybrid of both?
QAnon conspiracism is simply the latest manifestation of a right-wing conspiracy theory that has been around for a hundred years. It is an updated version of the Invisible Government conspiracy, the One-Worlder conspiracy, the Deep State conspiracy, and others. There is some new terminology—the “swamp” and of course QAnon himself—and lately a striking emphasis on paedophilia, but no new ideas.
It is worth pointing out that the vagueness of the QAnon conspiracy theory (as with its predecessors) allows its followers to flesh out the conspiracy in accordance with their individual fears and prejudices. Intensely religious followers can easily detect the hand of Satan behind the conspiracy. Others will pinpoint the Jews as the conspiracy’s driving force (This is the thinking behind that weird The-Jews-Will-Not-Replace-Us chant at the frat boy tiki torch rally in Charlottesville). There are probably some QAnoners who are still obsessed with Freemasons, or the Illuminati, or even the Vatican. And in his push to resuurect a 1950s-style Nationalism, Trump revived the specter of the “Globalist” elite.
It has always been the tradition of right-wing conspiracism to try to give some substance to its otherwise hazy elite by populating it with a few specific enemies. Years ago the Roosevelts, Rothschilds, and Rockefellers were popular choices. (Just three years ago, the death of David Rockefeller at the age of 101 still managed to generate an outpouring of online hatred.) QAnon believers, of course, focus their vituperation on Hillary Clinton, and take it as a matter of faith that anyone even remotely connected with her is part of the conspiracy. But Clinton could soon be displaced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and there is even a chance that Kamala Harris could move into the top spot. Aside from these she-devils, QAnoners single out George Soros—representing the global finance wing of the conspiracy—and still give some attention to Al Gore as the embodiment of its environmental extremist wing.
QAnon is noted for their shrewd use of YouTube and social media to disseminate their messaging. Do you think this year’s lockdowns—with millions of Americans cooped up at home and spending perhaps more time with screens than before—have tied into its rise?
I am not sure that QAnon stands out as particularly shrewd or sophisticated in their use of social media. The technology has been improving dramatically for years and each generation that comes along is more tech-savvy than the preceeding one. Back in 2007 the film Loose Change about the 9/11 attacks was widely noted for the quality of its production values, and since then, things have only gotten more professional. Probably the real test of shrewdness is how well conspiracy propagators control their message—keeping it consistent and on track—and the degree to which they are able to make their message seem spontaneous and “grassroots.” The Russian government, for example, appears to be very good at hiding its role in spreading conspiracy theories on social media. QAnon, of course, is to some degree a grassroots organization. But, like the Tea Party before it, QAnon adherents get information from a fairly narrow range of sources.
The pandemic lockdown has, I would imagine, increased the level of conspiratorial thinking. People are home watching Netflix and YouTube for hours and spending the rest of their time with Facebook, or some such thing. Under such a circumstance, it is easy to fall into a rabbit hole of conspiracism. Moreover, the pandemic itself has provided a new subject for conspiratorial thinking. Many people believe the conspiratorial narrative that the pandemic is a hoax. But who could pull off such a hoax? And why would they? The alternate reality conspiratorial framework provides easy answers to such questions. The lockdown itself, with its enforced idleness that has greatly increased everyone’s screen time, has only sped up an ongoing phenomenon. Conspiracist thinking was already becoming a commonplace before the pandemic. Now, the combination of continued isolation and the Trump re-election campaign can only make the situation worse.
For a lot of Americans today, it feels like we’re living through an unprecedented period in terms of the proliferation of a huge number of far-fetched, often dangerous, conspiracy theories. Should we view the current moment as a new era for the spread of conspiracism?
It feels that way because it’s true. Americans have been subjected to a series of conspiracy theories in recent years. The twenty-first century began with a swirl of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 attacks. Many of these broke new ground by denying even the most obvious facts to create an alternate reality filled with holograms and nano-thermite. Then there was the 2008 financial meltdown that cynical conspiracists portrayed as an elitist plot to destroy America’s heartland. And finally, the election of Barack Obama, which filled racists with such dread that they created an entire conspiracy theory surrounding his birth.
The growth of social media helped create a sort of cottage industry of conspiracism in the wake of all this. Medical conspiracies gave us anti-vaxxers. Dead conspiracies were reanimated (for example, the Federal Reserve conspiracy—largely stripped of its antisemitic underpinning—was revived). Second Amendment conspiracists claimed that school shootings were government sponsored hoaxes with “crisis actors” instead of real victims. Chemtrails filled our skies. The homosexual agenda was running rampant through our children’s schools.
The current moment is certainly a high point in conspiracism, and it will probably get worse. The pandemic is not over, nor are restrictions. The economic problems it has caused are only beginning. And the demand for racial justice, or at least an end to the unpunished killing of black people by the police and “militia” members, is not going to go away. All this will be grist for the mill of QAnon conspiracism—now working hand-in-glove with the Trump re-election campaign.
Are there any antidotes you can see to slow or even counteract the acceptance of conspiratorial thinking in the US today?
Is there any antidote to conspiracism? So far, there has not been. Conspiracy theories create narratives that many people find easy to grasp and satisfying to believe. And so they continue to be popular. It is hard to debunk them, since any effort to “fact check” a conspiracy can be written off as part of the conspiracy—in the classic that’s-what-they-want-you-to-believe way. No one thinks the government should step in to limit the free discussion of politics, even if conspiracy theories are harmful and out of control. Nor do people trust the handful of tech billionaires who own the internet to decide what is appropriate to say. Of course, it is always possible that QAnon will topple under the weight of its own unreality someday. This is more or less what happened to 9/11 conspiracy theories, but it is not really something to count on.
The most hopeful thing on the horizon is the speed with which counter-conspiratorial narratives are now able to be disseminated. Conspiracies have been debunked, but usually too late to do any good. While people have been busy investigating their claims, conspiracists have moved on—amending their original claims or coming up with new ones. Conspiracists would even use these debunkings to expand the scope of their original conspiracy (this happened for years as the fake moon landing conspiracists used NASA responses just to ask more questions). Recently, however, dedicated conspiracy debunkers have been responding quickly enough to keep up with the propagators of conspiracy theories. As these debunkers become better organized, they may be able to break into any QAnon story in time to counter it with accurate information and perhaps even expose its manufacture.
To end on a lighter note: what’s the best thing you’ve read, watched, or listened to lately?
I honestly try to avoid immersing myself in the news. It leads only to a rollercoaster of hope and despair. I spend as much time as I can fixing things around the house, which I find therapeutic. Still, I end up seeing news and analyses on YouTube. So, to ensure that we end each day on a positive note, my wife and I watch the 2018 video by the Turnaround Arts school arts program in which celebrities affiliated with this program sing and dance with the kids to “Love Train”—the O’Jays hit from the seventies. We have done this for so long during the lockdown that our dogs wake up and stretch when it comes on because they know it is time to go to bed.
Thomas Milan Konda is emeritus professor of political science at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Conspiracies of Conspiracies: How Delusional Thinking Has Overrun America is available now on our website or from your favorite bookseller.