The story of how I went from conspiracy fan to conspiracy critic.
Featured image sourced from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ prod. Walt Disney Productions, 1951.
Written 20 October 2021.
This article is part of a bumper pack on fighting disinformation. You can read my previous work on this topic here:
- ‘A Vaccine Against Disinformation’ (A guide on detecting disinformation and how to be street smart in the Internet Age)
- ‘Organising Against Disinformation’ (A guide and opinion piece adapted from a presentation by Campaign Against Racism and Fascism Australia. How to organise against disinformation in your city!)
Content Warning: Discussion of harmful digital communication, antisemitism.
Has social media made life better or worse?
A friend and I were discussing the film ‘The Social Dilemma’, and how internet echo chambers had become so intense and separated, that political hostility was at an all-time high. That this hostility and intolerance had now meant the difference between human rights and violence.
How many times have we seen something on social media which was extreme, outside of our interests and violent? The internet was the first time I had seen ISIL recruitment, where Q Anon and apocalyptic Christianity videos were on the YouTube homepage, where I had seen so called ‘intellectuals’ defending the Christchurch Shooter.
The internet is symbolic of a modern Wild West period, ungoverned, unexplored and infested with action and violence. When I signed up for a Facebook account, I expected a streamlined version of a real-life Yahoo Messenger, forums, email and keeping in touch with friends. But we all entered a world without the forewarning of the speed and power of curated messages. I have previously covered Facebook’s complicity in ethnic conflict, so when whistle blower Frances Haugen released her account of Facebook’s knowledge of a harmful algorithm and active enabling of hate speech, I was horrified, but not surprised.
At the time, I presented to my friend that with social media, I was thankful for my ability to connect to friends and family around the world and to go to a customised micro magazine of news, fashion, humour and friend updates all in one place.
Looking back, scandals such as Cambridge Analytica and the Haugen account might just be the tip of the iceberg. Social media’s funnel into polarised and extreme societies were evident before. And the speed as to how this has become the core of Facebook’s operations makes me concerned that too little is being done too late.
Now, more than ever, I am asked about my journey from a conspiracy fan in my early teens to an adult who has denounced the movement completely.
As a child, I spent entire summers at the public library, where my favourite Dewey Decimal section was the 100s, ghosts and the unexplained. This evolved into an interest leading into my teens, binge watching true crime series and shows on the paranormal, where my Friday nights would be having a friend over with me to unpack the clues and determine a lead theory. From Roswell to the Romanovs, to the Profumo Affair to the death of Bruce Lee, no mystery would go unturned.
The only other person who had this kind of interest was Michaela*. We were like peas in a pod. She was the biggest fan of both YouTube and Michael Jackson. Saddened by the death of Michael Jackson, she turned to YouTube for answers, which started from hidden messages from reversed songs and videos on sightings to theories of an Illuminati assassination. I looked at these increasingly extreme videos with interest, but she took them seriously. This evolved into videos of claiming reptilian control, Hollow Earth and 9/11 ‘Truthism’.
It was at this point, my interest unravelled, as it turned my friend into anti-Semitism, to decry Jewish people as having inherent traits of deceit and to blame for global massacres. It was clear that this was not an interest anymore but had governed Michaela’s world view and sense of apathy with politics and society. It was from then on, all the conspiracies unravelled at once, revealing an agenda. Theories claiming that famous women were ‘transvestites’ created a space of shock value to create ridicule and invalidate Trans Women. Theories around Ancient Aliens discredit the technology of people of colour. Theories about giants pre-dating indigenous people undermine claims of indigeneity. Theories around a ‘supreme race’ of aliens with Nordic features seems seated in white supremacy. Theories about mass conspiracies of control seem to ask readers to disengage with the political system and turn to political violence. When I look back at these posts and videos, there is little information, only appeals to anger.
I have made a significant effort to move away from conspiracy circles. But the pandemic has revealed these views in many who are close to me, a noticeable mass of former students from affluent Auckland high schools, social media influencers and siblings of friends have moved from not just vaccine hesitancy, but following far-right figures, claiming a link between 5G and mind control and equating public care to steps towards dictatorship. It’s especially sad to know that in such echo-chambers, people join because they are fed up with the news and decide to reject all news. Often, many started out just like me, led down the rabbit hole by a friend or family member. It is in these times when I realise that what can stop a person going further is also their friend or family member, to establish what their moral line is on a principle they have, which they will not cross. To remind loved ones of their core principles and how this is inconsistent with a particular view they are exploring can be more powerful than you think.
How many parts of my story can you recognise in your own?
When has a post from skincare taken you to Instagram recommendations on plastic surgery? When more conservative videos on indigenous rights have taken you to videos which contain hate speech? When a video about critiquing political correctness has taken you to a video on ejecting Muslims from the West?
I would hope that users have as much sense as to reject extreme messaging, to report, select ‘not interested’ and cheat the algorithm. That a democratic and (mostly) egalitarian country would be immune to the ethnic riots and post truth struggles of polarised and/or democratising countries. But when children I have met ask me about videos shown at the schoolyard which frightened them, when they are familiar with main conspiracy theories, I worry. Oh, I worry.
*Name has been changed.