Welcome to Conspiracy Inc.

America may be swimming in delusional fever swamps, but we're not doomed yet

There are two dangerous viruses sweeping the United States right now, unchecked. One has killed close to 200,000 Americans (thus far), crippled the economy and upended daily life. It didn’t have to go this way, but I am hopeful that COVID-19 will eventually be tamed.

The other virus is eating America’s soul. It is a creepy, mutating strain of conspiratorial ideation that has infected our collective psyche, politics and social networks. Yes, conspiracy theories have always waxed and waned in American history, but I don’t think they have ever been as pervasive and commonplace as they are today.

How did we get here, who is responsible and what can we do about it? These are the questions that will guide this newsletter.

Part of my motivation is personal. I have loved ones and friends falling down rabbit holes. And most likely, so do you:

This does not happen in a vacuum. People don’t wake up one day and pledge their allegiance to an internet cult that is both loony and dangerous.

Similarly, a space had to be created for people to embrace baseless conspiracies about vaccines, the pandemic, GMOs, Kamala Harris, George Soros, climate change, Black Lives Matter, and so on. The highly trafficked road to QAnon may have been paved in recent years by social media algorithms and Donald Trump devotees, but the groundwork had already been constructed over decades by mythical narratives of chemtrails, black helicopters, FEMA camps, flying saucers, Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, etc.  

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that numerous conspiracies, including those carried out by governments, hallowed institutions and big corporations, are true. Watergate was real.  The Roman Catholic church covered up decades of sexual abuse crimes by its priests. Tobacco companies hid the science on cigarettes. The CIA once had a mind-control program.  So there’s that legacy to keep in mind when we are tempted to scorn those drawn to conspiracy narratives.

Professionally speaking, this subject is familiar terrain for me. The prevalence of conspiracy narratives in science and politics is a theme of my work. Some readers may remember my blog at Discover Magazine (discontinued in 2015), where I often examined conspiracy theories that polluted discourse on climate change, biotechnology, vaccines, among other topics.

Additionally, via long articles in numerous outlets, such as Politico magazine and the Washington Post magazine, I have scrutinized enduring conspiracy narratives and profiled some of the zealous, well-known individuals whose careers became warped (Robert Kennedy Jr.), advanced (Sidney Powell) or destroyed (Rich Higgins) by conspiracy theories.

There is no ignoring or wishing away the conspiracy virus that is seemingly all around us. As the Guardian noted several years ago, “Conspiracy theories used to be a fringe obsession. Now they’re mainstream.” To what degree this is true and how worried we should be are questions I will be exploring with disinformation experts, social scientists and other researchers. 

For me, this newsletter is both an intellectual journey and a journalistic pursuit, to be guided by nuts & bolts reporting and the growing body of conspiracy scholarship. For now, you can expect to receive dispatches two or three times a week. Please feel free to share any comments or suggestions.

Thank you for joining me on this journey as we try our best to navigate these difficult, uncertain times.