The second shared characteristic of conspiracy theories is a preoccupation with them. They (whoever “they” might be) stand for everything that we (whoever “we” may be) despise. They are actively trying to dismantle our way of life. Sometimes, they are believed to have already infiltrated society, or at least the part of society that we care most about—these conspiracy theories are known as subversion myths or evil internal-enemy myths. For the white Protestant majority in the US, nonwhite, non-Protestant immigrants have historically filled the role of them; this is the foundation of the subversion myth known as “Make America Great Again.” Needless to say, the precise identity of them, the dangers they pose to us, and how we must respond are all dictated by our deep memetic frames.
The internal coherence of these frames makes them deeply resistant to fact checks. Milner and I explore this difficulty in our chapter about the satanic panics of the 1980s and ’90s, as well as its Trump-era reboot. The harder you try to disprove theories about satanists or the Deep State to people already convinced that you’re in on the conspiracy—or are sympathetic to the evil them—the more likely believers are to respond to your debunk with obstinance. Beyond that, they might reframe your “evidence” as proof that they’ve been right all along.
It’s not easy to reason with a conspiracy-theory believer, let alone hordes of them online. Audiences are constantly shifting, and it’s tricky to sort true conspiracy believers from pot-stirrers. But under the right conditions, it’s possible to figure out—at least generally—what deep memetic frame a given person is standing behind. From there you can aim your debunking at a target, like shooting a water gun through a hole in a fence. There’s no guarantee the person will be convinced by your correction, but at least the message is going to land where they can see it. Hooting jokes about the theory, in contrast, is like throwing a bucket of water at the same fence. You might make an impression on passersby, but otherwise all you’ll have is splash back.
In the case of the Nigerian Twitter account conspiracy theory, snarky retorts from Buttigieg’s campaign was the bucket flung at a fence. In place of targeted messaging, the campaign’s jokey messaging mocked believers’ conspiratorial tone while sidestepping the substance of their critique—notably Buttigieg’s less than stellar record on race, his campaign’s flirtation with sock puppetry, and the prior use of a stock photo of a Kenyan woman to tout the candidate’s racial justice bona fides.
Things died down after the Nigerian man operating the pro-Pete Twitter account came forward to insist that he was in fact a real Buttigieg supporter. What failed to quell the controversy was the Buttigieg campaign’s—and their supporters’—nothing to see here, dumbasses responses. Rather than being conspiracy-theory-busters, these responses were evidence generators. At the very least, they raised the possibility (for those with certain deep memetic frames) that something fishy was going on. Nothing generates splash back faster than a joke.
For those who seek to sow chaos and confusion, splash back is a gift from the disinformation gods. With everybody snarling and snarking and throwing buckets of gray water every which way, it’s difficult to keep track of whose fence is whose—and even harder to know what a targeted message might look like. Such conditions could not be more perfect for bad actors to arrive, collect the runoff, and use it to spread even more pollution, to amplify this or that conspiracy theory, or stoke this or that tension, or impersonate this or that candidate’s supporter to maximize ill will.
Mocking conspiracy theories and theorists might feel justified. It might be fun. But its benefits simply don’t match its costs. The call to stop amplifying disinformation agents is probably intuitive. The call to stop ridiculing true believers is probably less so. Conspiracy theorists have feelings, as well as reasons for believing what they believe. That’s good to remember regardless of whom you’re talking to. Protecting conspiracy theorists’ feelings isn’t the point, though; the point is to protect the environment.
Jokes about conspiracy theories are hazardous to the environment, a fact that underlines, once again, a simple, vital rule about the internet: Even when you don’t mean to, you can still fling filth all over the street.
More Great WIRED Stories