Mainstream Conspiracy

In his book, Barkun unravels the extraordinary genealogies and permutations of increasingly-widespread conspiracy theories, showing how this web has spread among subcultures on the Internet and through mass media and how this phenomenon relates to larger changes in American culture. Conspiracy theories have become really difficult to map as the number of channels through which these theories are disseminated continues to multiply. Being able to trace a conspiracy theory is really important because it allows us to differentiate a theory from facts, which can stop a false theory from working its way into mainstream culture.

For example, a few months ago, Charlie Kirk, who is the founder of Turning Point USA and a frequent Fox News contributor, published a tweet that contained startling but inaccurately sourced statistics about the alleged growth of human trafficking arrests under the Trump administration. The tweet stated there were 1,952 trafficking arrests through all of 2016, but in the first half of 2018 authorities had already made an astounding 5,987 human trafficking arrests. Kirk’s tweet falsely claimed these figures came from the Justice Department. Kirk deleted the tweet shortly after the true source of its figures were revealed: the imageboard 8chan, home of the QAnon conspiracy “researchers” of the board. The board’s research was sloppy and severely lacked credibility, but even more alarming was the board’s underlying goal to support their theory that Trump is secretly battling a corrupt deep state and evil cabal of pedophile Satan-worshipping elites. Kirk, who had up to this point established a reputation as a credible journalist, bought into the collective fantasy of some of the Internet’s most extreme Trump supporters. Kirk isn’t the only mainstream political figure who has promoted QAnon on social media–others have included Roseanne Barr, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, and even Trump himself.

U.S. president Donald Trump is actually responsible for spreading several conspiracy theories. Here are just a few examples of conspiracy theories Trump has floated on the campaign trail and during his time in office.

1) Ted Cruz’s father had potential ties to JFK’s assassin

2) President Obama was not born in the United States

3) Vince Foster, a former aide to President Bill Clinton who committed suicide, was actually murdered

4) Refugees coming from Syria “could be a Trojan horse” for ISIS terrorists

5) Climate-change studies are “done for the benefit of China”

6) Fox News is owned by a Saudi billionaire

7) MSNBC Joe Scarborough killed one of his interns in 2001

8) Obama wiretapped his phone

9) Democrats inflated the death toll of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

Barkun argues for the importance of understanding why conspiracy theories are spreading into more mainstream segments of American culture. In the first and second chapters of his book, Barkun makes the claim that conspiracy beliefs are very Manichaean, in the sense that they cast the world in terms of a struggle between good and evil, and hold that this polarization will persist until the evil is finally defeated. He uses the term “improvisational millennialism” which is a belief in an imminent destruction of the world and the creation of a new world as a result of the triumph of good over evil, to explain the essence of conspiracy beliefs.

Conspiracy theories were not too much of a concern when they were confined to the margins of society; but now that people of power in our society, including the U.S. president, are purporting these theories, we should be worried.

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