I used to think that the audience supporting any given conspiracy theory was made up of three distinct kinds of people: Cynics, true believers, and hobbyists.
The cynics were the ones making money off the arrangement somehow. They’re selling books about the “ancient astronauts” who built the pyramids or selling Bigfoot tourism in the Pacific Northwest or selling plush Nessie dolls at a lakeside gift shop. Or they could be selling exorcisms or fortunes or communications with dead relatives. Or they may be pseudo-academics for hire — guys like Wei-Hock Soon or E. Calvin Beisner. Or, more lucratively, Soon and Beisner’s counterparts in the world of advertising and PR — the folks Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway call “Merchants of Doubt.” The money involved could also be in the form of campaign contributions, like the gazillions from the fossil fuel industry that keeps corporate puppets like Sen. James Inhofe in office.
The true believers are more likely to be spending money than making it. They’re one set of the marks in any conspiracy theory con game — but not the only marks or even the main ones. And money isn’t the main thing they’re losing on the deal. They’re also losing sleep — staying up late to call in to Coast to Coast AM, and losing time and losing potential as they’re trained in the habits of deliberate ignorance and all the opportunity costs that come from obsessing over whatever fantasy has hooked them in.
But then there are the hobbyists, who are just in it for fun. Like the cynics, these folks know it’s all bogus nonsense, but they’re not trying to deceive anyone else about that. They just find some entertainment value from the what-if game of pretending it’s all somehow real.
And conspiracy theories can be great fun. They can be a kind of game that engages the creative, puzzle-solving, pattern-creating, story-weaving part of one’s mind. Set aside Occam’s razor and try to imagine Rube Goldberg’s razor. Forget the law of parsimony and embrace a rule of prodigality. Multiply entities beyond necessity. Avoid the simplest explanation — it’s probably the correct one, but you can surely come up with something a whole lot more fun.
Consider, for example, the classic conspiracy theory that claims the moon landing was a hoax. To really believe that is a kind of lunacy — requiring unhealthy doses of credulity and stubborn ignorance. But the same host of facts that true believers must ignore — and thus embrace ignorance toward — just makes the game that much more challenging. I wouldn’t want to spend more than five minutes in the presence of an actual moon-landing hoaxer, but I could spend a delightful evening with a creative bunch of witty people playfully attempting to spin their most outlandish, yet still just-barely possible, alternative history in which some group, somehow, for some reason faked the moon landing.
I call this game conpiracizing — which isn’t a word, but ought to be one. It’s not the same thing as actually “conspiring.” Nor does it involve actually embracing conspiracy theories the way the true believers do. It’s just a playful exercise, a game of toying with conspiracy theories as a kind of storytelling challenge and an absurdist response to the often-absurd claims of the cynics or of The Powers That Be.
We had some fun conspiracizing here recently in response to Walmart’s transparently disingenuous claim that it was closing several stores due to “plumbing problems” (see: “Meanwhile, in a secret base beneath the Walmart …“). That story seemed like irresistible fodder for the game of conspiracizing — vast, eerily empty buildings, a cabal of secretive multi-billionaires (most named “Walton”), and a strong whiff of dishonesty and dubious legality in the official explanation.
But for others, this was more than just the game of conspiracizing. True believers have also seized on that Walmart story and begun integrating it into the gnostic cult of their preferred conspiracy theories and fantastic fever dreams. And there were enough of these apparent true believers to force Walmart to respond publicly. The retail giant issued a public statement this week “dismissing ‘rumors’ that tunnels were being built by the U.S. military beneath closed stores in an attempt to launch a takeover of Texas“:
Phew. For our game of conspiracizing here, I suggested we concoct wild stories derived from entertaining fictional worlds like those of The X-Files, Men in Black, Chuck, Torchwood, Stargate or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But it seems like the true believers opted for yet another variation of Red Dawn/Left Behind fan fiction.
Here’s the thing, though: I said at the start of this post that “I used to think that the audience supporting any given conspiracy theory was made up of three distinct kinds of people: Cynics, true believers, and hobbyists.”
That’s in the past tense because I no longer quite believe that. What I’m starting to believe, instead, is that any individual supporter of any given conspiracy is made up of all three of those things.
Take a dive through the looking glass some time and explore the website of Answers in Genesis. On every page of that site, the lines between cynics and true believers and game-playing hobbyists is blurry and indistinct. You’re never far from a sale or a solicitation, yet all of the dealers seem to be at least a little bit high on their own supply. Are they cynics or true believers or a bit of both?
Look a bit deeper, though, and you’ll also find an element of play — even among the most greedily cynical and the most devoutly earnest. And you can detect this playfulness among both Answers in Genesis’s followers and its fundraisers — among both the grifters selling tickets to P.T. Kenham’s American Museum and the guileless rubes lining up to hand him their money. Whatever else it may be for any of them, young-Earth creationism is also, at least in part, a puzzle to be solved and a game to be played.
I suspect that’s true for every (mostly) cynic and every (mostly) true believer of every conspiracy theory — from moon-landing hoaxers to 9/11 troofers to tea partiers and birthers and Satanic baby-killer LARPers fretting about the “persecution” of white American Christians. It is, for all of them on at least some level, a game. And the cornered-animal defensiveness of every true believer is, in part, a desire not to let reality ruin all the fun.
I believe that’s true for the fervid “patriots” spinning Red Dawn fantasies about the Jade Helm military exercise. I believe that’s true for the nine right-wing state legislators who have monkey-wrenched Idaho’s child-support system due to supposed fears of a U.N. conspiracy. I believe that’s true for the Colorado IUD-troofers rolling back that state’s remarkable reduction in teen pregnancy and abortion rate. And I believe that’s true for the chemtrail fantasists bogarting the microphones at public meetings in Arizona.
I believe that’s true for every Bad Jackie clinging to whatever conspiracy theory or urban legend they’ve seized on to allow them to pretend to feel special.
This is part of why facts and evidence — even overwhelming facts and evidence — will never be sufficient as a rebuttal to any of these fantastic forms of folklore. As I wrote here several years ago, “To challenge that fantasy, to identify it as nothing more than that, is to threaten to send them back to whatever their lives were like before they latched onto this desperate alternative.”
A conspiracy theorist is someone whose circumstance has conspired to make fantasy preferable to reality. They are unlikely to abandon their alternate reality until we can show them some alternate to the reality they’re fleeing — something better than the powerlessness and the meaninglessness that made the fantasy game seem like a more attractive choice.