Anna Merlan is the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power.
In the course of writing a book on modern conspiracy culture, I, a journalist by profession, briefly became many other things: a CIA agent, a paid shill for Big Pharma and, of course, a Satan-worshipping participant in evil, pedophilia-based rites of power. People I spoke to believed in a range of conspiracy theories, and the accusations they sometimes lobbed at me – about my true motives, my actual bosses, who I really was – were in line with their views of the world. But mostly, of course, I was fake news. And everywhere, I met the people who’d like to replace me.
The belief that the mainstream media is full of fake news and misinformation is an exceedingly common one around the world: A 2017 Harvard-Harris poll in the United States found that 65 per cent of those surveyed agreed with the statement that there is “a lot of fake news in the mainstream media.” The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer – a yearly survey of 28 countries, which aims to uncover which institutions people are willing to put their faith in – found that only about 47 per cent of people in those countries trusted the news media. (In most surveys, interestingly, Canadians show a higher rate of trust in the news media, but still remain concerned about the prevalence of fake news.)
By now, of course, the fact that a lot of people think “fake news” and mainstream media are indistinguishable is well-known. But that false equation is also crucial to the way that conspiracy peddlers work, the people aiming to sell conspiratorial narratives – and, quite often, attendant products – to a suspicious public. The more extreme ends of conspiracy culture rely on the demonetization and vilification of the press, and the people promoting those theories do it to replace trustworthy news sources with their own, more profitable variety.
Alex Jones is the best-known example: He’s worked to stir up anger and hatred against the mainstream media, which he predictably thunders about nearly every time he’s in front of a microphone, and then uses his ad space to sell the often-questionable vitamin supplements he argues we won’t tell you about. In Mr. Jones’s telling – and that of plenty of other conspiracy peddlers – journalists don’t act as a check on the government and other power structures; we’re simply an extension of them. People who were deeply invested in various conspiracy communities – Pizzagate true believers, the UFO faithful, people who thought the government was hiding the deadly truth about vaccines – often told me that the news media wasn’t just untrustworthy, but actively controlled from above by sinister forces, working my hands like a marionette to tell me what to type. It’s a belief that conspiracy peddlers work very hard to promote, because it’s beneficial for them.
It’s a phenomenon that’s only gaining speed. Conspiracy culture, especially on the far right, has increasingly sought to replace real hard news outlets with their own versions – take the rise of sites such as Breitbart, founded in 2007, or the even more questionable Big League Politics, created in 2017 and specifically marketed as an investigative outlet – and calls itself the only reporting that’s trustworthy. Charlie Warzel memorably wrote about the rise of these outlets in Buzzfeed at the dawn of Donald Trump’s presidency, calling the “media upside-down.” Since his piece, they’ve only grown more ambitious.
Some would argue that this is nothing new. “Hyper-partisan news is a great American tradition,” Joseph Farah told me two years ago. He would know: Mr. Farah is the founder of World Net Daily, one of the oldest conspiracy news outlets to make the leap online.
Mr. Farah argued to me, correctly, that hyper-partisan news sources began “when America had competing newspapers in most markets,” and then he made the leap: that fake news in the United States is peddled by every news outlet alike. “I deplore fake news,” he told me, “which is a real phenomenon in what you would call ‘mainstream’ sources like CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as in the new media. It’s sad because it detracts from media that diligently stick to the old rules of journalism on sourcing, seeking out countervailing viewpoints, et cetera.”
The fact that Mr. Farah would make the argument that World Net Daily diligently sticks to “the old rules of journalism” is astonishing. (Among other things, the site promoted the so-called “death panel” conspiracy theory for years, claiming that under Obamacare, a panel of bureaucrats would decide which elder citizens merited the medical care necessary to live. At one point in 2010, to ratchet things up, the site even claimed to have evidence of so-called “super death panels.”) But it’s also part of a concerted effort on the part of conspiratorial news sources and media personalities to create confusion about what real journalism looks like: Take Mike Cernovich, a one-time men’s rights activist who dabbled in white nationalism before taking on a fairly major role on the far right. Mr. Cernovich increasingly describes himself as a journalist, and even created a purported documentary and book, both called Hoaxed, which claim to expose the fake-news media and show “how misinformation spreads online.”
By design, in other words, Mr. Cernovich trying to look like he’s engaged in the kind of fact-finding and truth-telling that real journalists are. And if he’s successful, he’ll find an audience in the vast number of people who are seriously invested in conspiracy theories (people who are, I have found, more likely to describe themselves as being part of the “truth community” or the “research community.”)
It’s been my experience that many, many people in the so-called truth community are earnestly concerned with the injustice and corruption they see around them, and are desperate to find news sources they can trust. As conspiracy peddlers – and President Trump – busily promote the idea that the fake news is the lying enemy of the people, that large audience is much more likely to seek out alternative news sources, falling right into the waiting arms of faux journalists such as Mike Cernovich, pushing a self-interested agenda. (Alongside his supposed journalism, Mr. Cernovich peddles his own branded supplements, too.)
And fomenting doubt and hatred against journalists doesn’t just help conspiracy peddlers promote products or achieve greater celebrity. Destabilizing trust in the media creates doubt about the nature of reality itself: It makes it more difficult for people to tell what is true, who is trustworthy and what’s knowable at all. That’s an end in itself: to make people so uncertain of the truth that they accept your version unquestioningly, or else give up looking altogether.
Intriguingly, even the conspiracy peddlers themselves will sometimes tell you that they don’t believe any media source in particular. I asked Mr. Farah of World Net Daily what media outlets he did trust, and his answer was shaded in contradictions: “My own,” he wrote back. “Although, occasionally, even it disappoints me. I don’t put trust in media, only in God.”