What Makes Conspiracy Theorists Tick?

Circumstance I suppose. My life has been remarkably ordinary in many ways and at least two-thirds of it was lived during times when we trusted our media sources. It’s hard for me to feel my government is evil—corrupt perhaps, even devious and unprincipled at times—but hardly evil.

And yet there are those who suppose as much

And I search for reasons, because I count myself a reasonable man. Having spent the best part of the last quarter-century writing about America’s social and political history, I find plenty of seeds for the growing mistrust of government that blooms into conspiracy theories.

I mark the Vietnam War as the beginning of that mistrust

When the French quit Indochina in 1954, the US assumed financial and military support for the South Vietnamese state. No one asked my permission nor explained why. Something to do with dominoes, but it was never sold to America as being worth it. Kennedy and Johnson lied their way through a ‘police action’ (it was never declared a war, we don’t do wars anymore)  that cost one his life, the other his reputation and the nation nearly 60,000 troops killed and another 100,000 wounded.

All hell broke loose in those years. First John Kennedy, then Bobbie, then Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated and we reeled from one disaster to another, with never clear or sufficient explanations.

Trust is everything in government and trust was gone with the wind

The small brush-fires of conspiracy exploded in Vietnam and raged through the killings of our leaders. Those fires remain today; Vietnam, civil rights and assassinations were markers—signposts along the road, updated by Nixon’s resignation, Reagan’s Iran Contra affair and numerous scandals, Clinton’s impeachment, Bush’s undeclared wars, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Obama’s drone killings and Trump’s 30,000 lies.

And then the internet

God bless us, every one—no more shaking out the newspaper to the sports section over morning coffee and a cursory glance at the headlines on the way out the door.

As newspapers moved online, eyeballs were the hallowed ground that drove advertising. A child falling down a well in Montana was worth twenty carefully thought-through exposes on an environmental issue. Besides that, the kid in the well had what the editors called legs—the story might run for days with no journalist on the spot.

The internet gave us a new language…

…one based on clicks and likes, where we built and buffed and polished our own online persona. We lied about ourselves, just as our government lied to us—what the hell, they had no monopoly on misrepresentation and the timing was simply perfect.

There were no rules. Each of us was anonymous and suddenly had 500 friends. Never mind we had no one to meet for lunch, there was no time for lunch anyway. Bent over our iPhones, fingers flying, we dared not be left behind. To text and not get a reply was death. It was a game, clicks and likes were the score and outrage the weapons of choice.

So what did you expect us to do? We got outrageous

What’s home-base for outrage? Conspiracy.

If you want to be outrageous and you’re looking for an audience—as well as love, clicks and adoration—conspiracy is the real deal. “You won’t believe what I heard” is the ticket-at-the-door that gets you in. “Biden was picked up for child-abuse when he was only twelve.”

No need for proofs. Joe won’t call you out, because that would only give the story oxygen. It’s perfect and just the kind of shit that flies around the internet in seconds. Bingo, you’ve gone viral, you’re a hitter. You have an audience and all you need to do now is (as George Carlin says) service the account.

Perfectly nice people out there are vulnerable

Your audience are not creeps and weirdos, they’ve been so lied to and abandoned by their government that they’re looking for a little solace, a little understanding from someone who won’t just say, “It’ll be okay sweetheart, just keep your chin up.”

Their chin is on the floor.

And you know who spent half a century getting it there?


Image Credit: opb.org

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