Tuesday 25 June 2019

The warped line from truth to lies and the imagination

Politics: Republic of Lies: American conspiracy theorists and their surprising rise to power

Anna Merlan

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Hillary Clinton; a 'lightening rod' for conspiracy theories, including the debunked Pizzagate, covered in Anna Merlan's book Republic of Lies
Hillary Clinton; a 'lightening rod' for conspiracy theories, including the debunked Pizzagate, covered in Anna Merlan's book Republic of Lies
The debunked Pizzagate is covered in the book
Republic of Lies: American conspiracy theorists and their surprising rise to power

Frieda Klotz

A stroll through Trump's Twitter feed provides a sense of how far the tentacles of conspiracy theories extend. Just last weekend, Trump could be found re-tweeting one of his favourite memes from the 2016 campaign trail - suggesting that 756 pages of emails Hillary Clinton had tried to destroy have now resurfaced.

It's a reminder of how Trump exploited, and continues to benefit from, the furore around Clinton's email use and related theories. (Trump has cannily dubbed similar questions about Ivanka's emails, "fake news").

There's little new about conspiracy theories themselves, as Anna Merlan writes in Republic of Lies. After all, some people are still wondering who shot JFK, or whether the British royal family had a hand in Princess Diana's death. What is different, though, is that the most unhinged and unlikely narratives now teem unconstrained on the internet.

As Merlan puts it, "social media has created the world's most efficient vehicle of delivery for conspiracy theories".

In her study of the conspiracy theories sweeping across America today, Merlan kicks off with so-called Pizzagate - the belief that Hillary Clinton and members of her circle were involved in an international paedophile ring, operating from the basement of a pizzeria in Washington DC. The rumour unspooled after WikiLeaks released the emails of Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. Amateur detectives concluded that references in the messages to "cheese" referred to "little girl" and "pasta" to "little boy" - along with other, much more unsavoury, codes.

On internet platforms like Reddit, 4Chan and Twitter, a rabid discussion placed Hillary Clinton at the heart of a sex-slave ring. Fired up by the debate, one enthusiast made his way to the pizzeria in question, carrying two guns and intent on rescuing the suffering victims.

When he found nothing, he surrendered to police - but the rumour still held sway. A poll in December 2016 found that nearly a fifth (17pc) of Hillary Clinton's voters and half of Trump's, thought the stories were true. When Merlan attended a protest against Pizzagate four months later, she met a man with his young son, who wielded a sign saying, "If you see me with John Podesta, call the police!"

On the one hand, these theories have the ability to influence political outcomes. But they can also affect ordinary people on a devastating personal level.

Parents of Noah Pozner, who at six and three weeks, was the youngest child to die at the Sandy Hook school shooting, were harassed by groups convinced the whole thing was a hoax and demanding that the boy's body be exhumed to prove he had been killed. Earlier this year, Jeremy Richman, whose daughter died at Sandy Hook, and who had also been targeted by so-called Sandy Hook deniers, committed suicide.

There are plenty of other instances of victims becoming targets. In another tragic incident, a young man who worked for the Democrats was murdered on his way home from a bar one night. His death quickly attracted the attention of activists convinced that Hillary Clinton - a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists - had him assassinated because she wanted to silence him for leaking secrets. The resulting outcry, Merlan reports after speaking to his brother, hindered the family's ability to grieve.

Each of these theories is so bewildering and complex that it warrants a book in itself.

One flaw of Republic of Lies is the extent to which it tries to cover such a wide range of disparate and sprawling topics - political scandalmongering, the anti-vax movement, white supremacist groups and impassioned students of UFOs. This means that although Merlan offers up a wealth of juicy, well-researched detail, she misses the opportunity to probe the motives of conspiracy theorists, some of whom are clearly troubled, battling mental health issues or poverty. For example, of the boy holding the sign about Podesta at the Pizzagate rally, she writes: "His father was next to him in a wheelchair and an InfoWars shirt, glowing as one person after another came up to take photos of his son." But what brought the pair to the rally in the first place? What did the event offer them?

Inevitably, conspiracy theories derive power from their ability to tap into real emotions, such as anxiety, paranoia or a sense of injustice. We occasionally get a glimpse of these undercurrents. One group called the sovereign citizen movement declines to cooperate with the federal government and its members try to avoid paying child support or taxes.

When assessing their beliefs, Merlan rightly notes that corporations, banks and millionaires do seem to be able to find their way around the tax code, which would grant the movement's views some legitimacy in the eyes of those in financial hardship (or hoping to evade the IRS).

Republic of Lies is a densely written and ambitious account that traces the wobbly line between truth, lies and the imagination.

While it doesn't give a definitive answer to what drives conspiracy theorists, it conjures up an alarming picture of online discourse. It shows what happens when trust in traditional institutions evaporates and social media posts take its place. A quick look at Reddit is enough to indicate that the phenomenon Merlan describes isn't unique to the US and won't go away any time soon.

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