The Truth Is Out There (Except When It Isn't)
Conspiracy Theories And Politics In The Age Of Trump
Megyn Kelly, still fresh from her exit from Fox News, and just settling in at NBC, has caused controversy by announcing an interview with Alex Jones.
Jones (for those who are somehow unaware of him) is the long-time right-wing conspiracy theorist media personality who has alternatively claimed that the New World Order is out to get us, that 9/11 was an inside job perpetrated by the Bush administration, and that the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was a staged event as part of a scheme to take away the guns from god-fearing, Second Amendment-guaranteed Americans.
Jones has been on the radar since at least the mid-1990s, but seems to have gotten a lot of attention in recent years with the Kelly interview controversy being the latest chapter in his story. Indeed, this is only the latest event in a slow descent into an almost-paranoid vision of American politics.
Conspiracy theories have been a mai stay of American political life for more than a half-century now. Yet ,it was perhaps only in this most recent presidential election season that it reached a level previously only imagined by fiction writers and the most die-hard of conspiracy theorists.
Much of that descent was dictated by one candidate in particular who made claim after claim ranging from Ted Cruz's father being involved with the JFK assassination to Hillary Clinton coming to take people's guns away with no understanding of how repealing an amendment works.
Indeed, Trump even received the open and full support of the aforementioned Alex Jones — despite Jones' documented and numerous failed predictions of upcoming "staged" terrorist attacks, and despite the fact he has railed against the money men that this candidate represents.
Or, on the other side of the political spectrum, supporters of another former candidate cry out about voter fraud and how it just isn't possible that he could have been beaten. All of this, despite evidence to the contrary, can be seen across multiple websites and social media, if not in the campaign itself.
How did this happen? How could so many otherwise rational people buy into these things? Or, even stranger perhaps, continue to do so once things had been shown to be false?
Perhaps I can offer some perspective.
I am a former 9/11 Truther.
For those unaware of the "Truther" movement, the basics of it are simple: it is a group of people from all across the spectrum who believe that the Bush administration and U.S government lied about the events of 9/11. Not only had they lied, but many within the movement came to the view that the attacks were a "false flag operation" in which parts of U.S intelligence staged the attacks to justify the War on Terror.
From 2005 to around 2010, I was a believer in that as a very real possibility. More than that, I was utterly convinced that it was the case. After all, if these same people could mislead the public into thinking that Iraq had WMDs, then maybe killing 3,000 or so people and blaming it on those same people wasn't a stretch.
After all, watching things like Loose Change and reading articles on the topic presented what seemed to be anomalies and made a clear case that this was, in fact, the truth.
I know that it made sense to me, at least at 18-20 years old, and in the political climate of the time — though I didn't buy into all the claims as some of it seemed quite outrageous and the attempts to tie it into larger “New World Order” conspiracies by people like Alex Jones struck me as odd.
How much did I believe it?
Being someone who wanted to be a filmmaker, I wrote a script around 2008 for I thought for be a low-budget feature film depicting how the whole thing might have gone down —though it ended up being too short for a feature film and too long for a short film. (That, and money meant it never went anywhere.)
In the process of researching and writing that script (which as I recall was entitled A Self-Inflicted Wound), I ended up deeply immersed in the conspiracy theory and Truther worlds to the point of having to get away from it.
By the time I came back to it, 2009, after a break with the idea of rewriting the script to take in new information, I found that the material that had seemed so compelling wasn't.
Suddenly, what I thought were desperate attempts to explain strange things turned out to be rational and logical explanations. I walked away from the Truther movement convinced that it wasn't true.
Sitting here in 2017, I feel the same way. The experience taught me a lot about critical thinking and the need to examine conspiracy theories (or at the very least controversial claims) in a greater light and to give skeptics the benefit of the doubt.
I realize now that I closed my mind to the possibility of 9/11 not being an inside job, which I think is what so many people then and now who are Truthers have done.
Why do I mention all this? Is it that I'm proud to be a 9/11 Truther? Not at all. I say all that for a simple reason: I was wrong.
I took on a warped view of a major event and the people involved and came to believe something that in retrospect was utterly absurd. I admit that, not out of pride for having been utterly wrong, but because if we can't admit we're wrong and seek out the truth about something, what's the point?
I also mention it because it has some relevance to the current situation we find ourselves in.
Because many of the same people I followed in my Truther days also came to buy in everything from the "Birther" movement to the controversies about Benghazi and Clinton's emails that were used to undermine her election bid.
I watched people buy into sometimes-absurd claims because of who was saying them or how they were presented, watched as old debunked ideas were refreshed again and again.
The 9/11 Truth movement became the first conspiracy theory of the Internet Age, and the way it expanded and came to be believed by some people despite all evidence to the contrary has been repeated over and over again.
Being inside the Truther movement, being such a believer as I once was, gave me insights into that way of thinking. I read books and articles, watched documentaries explaining why it wasn't true and rejected them out of hand. Why?
Because I was convinced it was propaganda being put out to cover-up the truth, or because admitting the truth meant that I was wrong.
There's one other reason, summed up by a poster featured so prominently in The X-Files (itself a show that drew heavily on conspiracy theories): "I want to believe."
Because that willingness to believe things, to make order out of chaos, can make us see patterns in things that aren't there.
That mindset, cultivated by the internet and by opportunists on all sides of the political spectrum, has led us here.
It has led us to a place where Donald Trump can accuse Ted Cruz's father of being involved with the JFK assassination as he did, where facts and figures can be thrown out at a moment's notice a la the number of communists Joe McCarthy knew were in the State Department, where 25 years of conspiracy theories are given Frankenstein-style resurrections so they may be restated over and over again despite many of them having been debunked, where a prominent conspiracy theorist like Alex Jones can openly hold events for Trump while Trump talks about how great Jones is, where Trump can say that if doesn't win the election must have been rigged, or where some Bernie Sanders supporters can claim that the election was stolen away from them.
Just because it's on the internet or someone said it doesn't make it true. But, the conspiracy theorist mindset, one of paranoia, where someone is always out to get you, has become commonplace and the ability to be rational and look at information has been seemingly lost.
The 9/11 Truth movement is barely in existence in anymore and some of its high-profile former members (including Loose Change filmmaker Dylan Avery), have disowned their former beliefs.
Others like Alex Jones simply don't speak their views as often. Why? Because so many conspiracy theories are of their time, belonging to an era and a time that once it passes makes them irrelevant.
That does mean that there aren't conspiracies as the history of the Soviet Union or an examination of certain government activities in the U.S during the Cold War era proves.
Instead, they are absorbed, lurking on the fringes until the day comes when they might be useful again to smear someone with.
Nor am I saying you can't watch The X-Files or any number of movies and TV shows just because they feature conspiracy theories. As a fiction writer, I use them in some of my plots. The important thing is to separate the fact from the fiction, to know the difference between them. Why? Because, to quote someone smarter than I'll ever be: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Truth is important. Facts are important. They might be ugly, hard to believe at times, but that doesn't make them any less true. Whatever the case might be, whatever claim is being made, never be afraid to take that all in and ask a simple question: "Can you back that up?"
Just be ready to be proved wrong.