Wednesday February 17, 2021 — Taipei, Taiwan
I notice a tendency in media to write about what people “believe.” This seems to me to be a fundamentally impossible task, and a framing that misunderstands a lot of the appeal of conspiracy theories. Do QAnon people “believe” that celebrities are literally drinking the blood of children? Does Gen Z “believe” that Helen Keller never existed? Do Republican senators “believe” that the deficit is important?
All of these people will say that they believe these things, but belief is a state of mind, not something that can be inferred from statements. In the case of Republican senators talking about the deficit, it’s pretty clear that they’re just lying through their teeth to try to grab as much power as possible, although that doesn’t stop media companies from running headlines about those senators being “concerned” about costs. But in the cases of QAnon and Helen Keller, it’s less clear what’s happening.
Adrian Hon makes the case that QAnon is essentially an ARG. An ARG doesn’t require belief, just suspension of disbelief. Belief tends to imply a coherent and consistent worldview, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening in the minds of most conspiracy theorists.
Taking a look at the Helen Keller teens, the author’s choice of the word “believe” to describe the phenomenon is interesting — there are seemingly sincere videos of people sharing the conspiracy theory, as well as ones that are clearly joking and poking fun. But where is the dividing line between one or the other? How can we discriminate between TikToks that are sincere and ones that are just riding along with the memeI don’t mean to use the word “meme” to discount the ableism inherent in this — clearly, memes can be extremely harmful, and I just use the term to describe the way in which the ideas spread, not to make a value judgement. ? We can’t, and trying to is often harmful to our understanding.
There’s actually an interesting precedent here for TikTok memes being misunderstood — the concept of a “VSCO girl” was created on TikTok in order to make fun of a stereotype of people who largely didn’t exist in reality, then the imitations became more and more sincere, until outsiders failed to realize that the entire concept of a “VSCO girl” was a parody — a perfect simulacrum. Baudrillard would be proud.
It’s worth noticing that the harm done by a conspiracy theoryI use the term “conspiracy theory” here in the colloquial sense, to talk about theories that are clearly false. There are many real and well documented conspiracies out there, and I don’t mean to imply that conspiracies don’t happen. spreading is not changed by whether the people spreading it believe it or not — the Helen Keller conspiracy is just as ableist regardless of whether it’s being shared seriously or ironically. QAnon does not rely on people being true believers in order to build a base of violent extremists.
The point of conspiracy theories isn’t to make people believe — it’s to spread a meme powerful enough that people don’t have to believe in order to build a powerful movement. Whether people believe or not is immaterial to that, and focusing reporting on what people “believe” rather than the power that they’re building is missing the point.