“Listen, Claudius, let me give you a piece of advice. ... Trust no one.”
King Herod spoke these words to Emperor Claudius in I, Claudius. The punchline? Claudius dies. But so it goes with the dark whisperings of conspiracies: They flower best in the swelter of near truths, confusion and naked self-interest. And coming out of a 2020 that was to the spirit born of krakens, stolen elections, Russiagate and Satan-worshipping pedophiles, we’re wondering what becomes a conspiracy most. To which we’d answer with a question: Who wants to know?
Eugene S. Robinson, Editor-at-Large
the latest in conspiracy ‘facts’
1. The Most Dangerous Game
Adrian Hon, a game designer, had a coldly curious eureka moment a few months ago. QAnon and its increasingly wild conspiracy theory — Satan-worshipping child sex traffickers aligned with George Soros, Barack Obama and friends of the now “deceased” Jeffrey Epstein were plotting with celebrities and global elites to deny Donald Trump the presidency — had started to unspool. It was just like the alternate-reality games Hon designs. Too much like them. And that went a long way toward explaining its appeal.
2. Crafty Jewish Space Lasers
One of QAnon’s most famous fans — though she’s tried to distance herself of late — is the new U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. But regardless of the conspiracist, it never takes long for the prime object of all conspiracy theories to emerge. Newly unearthed social media activity revealed Greene’s supposition that lasers in outer space were causing the California wildfires … and the lasers were funded by Jews. Her response to being labeled as an anti-Semite? “Every lie, every smear strengthens my base of support because people know the truth.” That theory will be tested as House Democratic leaders plan a vote Thursday to strip Greene, a Republican, of her committee assignments.
3. Catholic Conspiracists
Adversity makes for strange bedfellows, and so it is that the semi-progressive Pope Francis has inspired some hard-right Catholics to plunge into deeper conspiratorial waters, in the QAnon-Trumpist vein. They see the Argentine pope’s moves toward modernization as part of a wider plan to worship the devil, with a pinch of socialism thrown in for good measure.
4. Color Bill Gates Surprised
Microsoft founder and frequent subject of conspiracy theories connected to injectable microchips and cryptocurrencies, Gates is surprised to find he’s become a part of the overheated plot to undermine, well, everything, but specifically COVID-19 vaccines and recent efforts to fight the virus. “You know, is there some plot behind this, that myself or [Dr. Anthony] Fauci are somehow involved in?” Gates asked on a recent episode of The Carlos Watson Show. “That’s all untrue. I worry that it will make people more hesitant.”
Disinformation mimics information today in one way that makes it particularly hard to correct: It comes in unrelenting waves. Metastasizing from one strange subset to another, conspiracies can be like quicksilver. Which is why it’s a good thing that someone is thinking about stopping it before it kills us all. Dr. Sander van der Linden has identified the six “degrees of manipulation” as a way to recognize it and fight back: impersonation, conspiracy, emotion, polarization, discrediting and trolling.
2. Tweet Tracker
There are no better trolls these days than the Russians, who have been meddling in elections the world over. Soviet-born Olya Gurevich, co-founder of MarvelousAI, is taking them on — with sunlight. Gurevich uses natural language processing to sort through more than 20 million tweets per month to identify themes consistent with Russian motives and then pushes them out to the public to shine a light on the true sources of the ugly conspiracy theories populating America’s fever swamps.
Tulane University associate professor Geoff Dancy has gathered that the best way to deal with the fire hose of factoids that often accompany burgeoning conspiracy theories is not head-on. Mostly because not all facts are created equal but also because offering your counter-facts will convince your conspiracists of very little. The best way, as Dancy lays it out on the podcast On Good Authority, is to chip away at the beliefs they do hold. One strategy? Have them walk you through their theory while politely asking for the evidence.
4. Wait, Jewish Space Lasers Are Not Real?!?!
Michael Clark, a firefighter in Hawaii, is deploying his know-how by debunking all of the forest fire/space laser stuff, despite what the aforementioned Geoff Dancy says, head-on, point by point. Clark does it on TikTok, which is a better place to start than no place.
5. Mick West Is the Best
Here’s my conspiracy theory: British professional debunker Mick West is really Black Flag founder and guitarist Greg Ginn in disguise. But all it would take is 10 seconds on his Metabunk — an invaluable repository of swift conspiracy debunks — for West, the esteemed author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole, to have me crushed and admitting fault. Though his method of using respect and logic seems like it would be much less emotionally satisfying than using large polo mallets and rage.
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If I were to say this to you right now, you’d give me the stink eye, flee to an undisclosed safe locale, text everyone we know saying I’d lost my mind. And yet … the CIA, as part of the MK-Ultra project, did that very thing: It asked for volunteers and then dosed them with the hallucinogen LSD, or acid. Among the inmate volunteers was Boston Irish crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.
Movie after movie extol the overreach of a technologically advanced but morally questionable Big Brother of a government. And even though there’s some truth to that whole smoke-and-fire thing, if you were to make a public claim that the government is watching you, you would be mocked. However, U.S. government requests for Google user data are up 510 percent since 2010, with Facebook requests up 364 percent since 2013. The next most prolific data-seeking government is Germany, though the U.S. conducts more such requests than its 13 key intelligence partners combined.
3. AIDS, Bayer, Heroin and Nazis
Germany’s Bayer — yes, the aspirin-maker — was not only part of the IG Farben conglomerate that made the chemicals used in Nazi gas chambers but also commercially sold heroin and used Nazi-supplied forced labor. On top of all that? The company discovered that the medicine it used to help hemophiliacs with clotting was likely to transmit AIDS. Bayer pulled it from U.S. markets, but Asia and Latin America were not so lucky.
Israel has been accused of using sharks and eagles to carry out attacks. Norwegians have accused Russians of using beluga whales as spies. And Iran has caught 14 squirrels it claims were spying for Israel. All solid enough to elicit a laugh. However, Russia does train whales for combat, and the U.S. has trained ravens, pigeons and cats as spies. Laughing now?
history’s oddest theories
1. Hitler + Submarines, Natch!
Upper-echelon Nazis didn’t have stored dental records. And the fires supposedly set on the dead bodies of Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler weren’t set to destroy the bodies, since that takes more fuel than was used, but rather to conceal their identities so they could fly to Franco’s Spain and then hop on a submarine to Argentina. Given the evidence that supports the death in the bunker story, this sounds crazy, but Josef Stalin never believed that Hitler died in Berlin.
2. The Curious Case of Ronaldo
We’ve all seen soccer players in action. A stiff wind blows by them, they fall, clutching a knee. It’s classic. But in 1998, there was a World Cup in Paris, and the single-named Ronaldo, Brazil’s star player, suffered an untimely stomach ailment that stymied his game and allowed France, the aggressive underdogs, to win. Did someone poison Ronaldo?
3. Are You Sure About the Moon?
Sure, you’ve seen something in the sky that you were told is this thing called a moon, and supposedly people have walked on it. But you haven’t walked on it, and moreover you’ve seen lots of things in the sky, bright things. How would you know a moon from a spotlight? This is where former soccer player and sports broadcaster David Icke comes in with the simplest of explanations: The moon is not real.
4. Is Finland Just Fiction?
My favorite “theory” has everything to do with a definable landmass, population and place I’ve actually been to: Finland. Which, we are to believe, does not exist. At all. According to some theorists, Finland is not a country but rather a strip of ocean shared by Russia and Japan to be exploited as a fishing region. Japanese fishermen troll the waters, free of international laws, as long as they share their catch with Russia. And the fish? Caught and shipped, via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, disguised as Nokia products. Maybe. Or more probably: Not.