Andrew Marantz: What Happens When Fringe Conspiracy Theories Become Mainstream? For the past few years, journalist Andrew Marantz has been embedded in the world of far-right extremists online. He explains how once-fringe conspiracy theories migrated into the national discourse.
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Andrew Marantz: What Happens When Fringe Conspiracy Theories Become Mainstream?

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Andrew Marantz: What Happens When Fringe Conspiracy Theories Become Mainstream?

Andrew Marantz: What Happens When Fringe Conspiracy Theories Become Mainstream?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

On the show today, ideas about technology, deception and our changing sense of reality. And deepfakes make up one disturbing side of misinformation. Another - conspiracy theories. Sure, they've been around a long time - classics like the earth is flat or another one that just won't go away.

ANDREW MARANTZ: There's a secret cabal of shadowy, wealthy elites who either explicitly are named as Jews or just kind of fit into type of mold that sounds like they're probably Jews.

ZOMORODI: In the past few years, these conspiracy theories, along with a whole set of new ones, have moved from the extreme fringes into the American mainstream.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fox News Media brings America together.

JEANINE PIRRO: If ever there were a question whether a deep state existed...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The deep state is real, folks.

PIRRO: ...You got your answer this week.

MARIA BARTIROMO: Do you believe George Soros is behind all of this, paying these people...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Talking about all of this with the global warming and the - a lot of it's a hoax. It's a hoax. I mean, it's a money-making industry.

SEAN HANNITY: The mob in the media - well, they will be advancing their new conspiracy theory and their newest...

ZOMORODI: The most recent and obvious example...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...An online conspiracy theory group. It's unclear if...

ZOMORODI: QAnon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: QAnon's baseless conspiracy theories have been repeatedly debunked. Despite this, the far-right group continues to...

ZOMORODI: A network of conspiracy theories all leading back to a mythic, anonymous leader named Q, allegedly a high-level government official who has access to top-secret information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Well, I don't know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate. But I don't know much about the movement.

MARANTZ: Yeah, so QAnon starts with the assumption that Donald Trump is secretly saving the world and that, you know, he doesn't want credit for it. He doesn't want to boast about it, but he's actually the only person who is ferreting out this massive deep state conspiracy that involves hundreds of people engaging in child sex trafficking and satanic, cannibalistic rituals.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

MARANTZ: It's like, sorry, what? And, you know, that is just straight-up misinformation/disinformation. So in a way, that's almost a less ambiguous case because it's so completely bonkers, honestly. And it's almost like if I were writing the script, I would be like, no, guys. That's too on the nose. Like, that's too...

ZOMORODI: It's...

MARANTZ: That's too much of a completely...

ZOMORODI: No one will believe that.

MARANTZ: ...Bizarre - yes. No one will believe it. But, you know, millions of people do.

ZOMORODI: This is journalist Andrew Marantz.

MARANTZ: I am a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, and I wrote a book called "Antisocial" - I have to make sure I remember the subtitle - "Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, And The Hijacking Of The American Conversation."

ZOMORODI: Even before QAnon entered mainstream conversation in 2017, Andrew noticed a huge rise in far-right extremism and conspiracy theories online.

MARANTZ: Starting 2014 or 2015 - around there, I started seeing this informational crisis on the horizon. I certainly was not the only person. But I was kind of behind the curve at the time because I wasn't back then thinking of this as a particularly political story. I was thinking of it as, you know, a business story or a tech story or...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MARANTZ: But then the summer of 2016, I really started saying, OK, this is going to have a massive impact on the presidential election. I mean, in a way, how could it not, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MARANTZ: Racist memes, misogynist propaganda, viral misinformation - so I wanted to know who was making this stuff. I wanted to understand how they were spreading it. Ultimately, I wanted to know what kind of impact it might be having on our society.

ZOMORODI: Here's Andrew on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MARANTZ: So that's how I ended up in the living room of a social media propagandist in Southern California. He was a married white guy in his late 30s. He had a table in front of him with a mug of coffee, a laptop for tweeting, a phone for texting and an iPad for livestreaming to Periscope and YouTube. And yet with those tools, he was able to propel his fringe, noxious talking points into the heart of the American conversation.

For example, one of the days I was there, a bomb had just exploded in New York, and the guy accused of planting the bomb had a Muslim-sounding name. Now, to the propagandist in California, this seemed like an opportunity because one of the things he wanted was for the U.S. to cut off almost all immigration, especially from Muslim majority countries. So he started livestreaming, getting his followers worked up into a frenzy about how the open borders agenda was going to kill us all and asking them to tweet about this and use specific hashtags, trying to get those hashtags trending. And tweet they did - hundreds and hundreds of tweets.

ZOMORODI: It must have been kind of weird for you, like, sitting there and watching how public manipulation works from a couch.

MARANTZ: Yeah. What you see when you sort of sit at someone's elbow and watch them do this is - it's like getting good at poker or something. You kind of learn the basic mechanics of the thing, and then you play a lot of rounds. And if you're good enough, you know, you don't win every round, but you win a lot of them. So what that means in terms of social media is you kind of get a sense of what the algorithms want. And the really simplistic way of putting it is that they want whatever has the sharpest emotional impact on the viewer and specific kinds of emotions, too - the emotions that make people do something with their - either click or share. But for the most part, he wasn't breaking the rules of Twitter or whatever platform he was using. He was just really good at getting his message out there.

ZOMORODI: And so this guy in California and all the other folks you spent time with - like, what was their mission? Was it just to create chaos, to tear down democracy? - because that guy doesn't seem like he really believes in this stuff, but there are people who do.

MARANTZ: Yeah. It's a spectrum, right? It's - sometimes we talk about, you know, people who are doing this for profit cynically, who don't believe what they're peddling and then people, on the other hand, who are true believers. And I think that is a true and worthwhile distinction. And I guess all I would add is that there are many shades of gray in between.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MARANTZ: Right? So it's not purely immediate monetary motivation in most cases. And then you'll get some cases where it is just people who have just been radicalized or, you know, red-pilled as they call it. And they just think the world will not be safe until we have a white ethnostate. And, you know, obviously, those people are hard to deal with because they're pretty far gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MARANTZ: I talked a lot with one young woman who grew up in New Jersey, and then after high school, she moved to a new place. And suddenly, she just felt alienated and cut off and started retreating into her phone. She found some of these spaces on the Internet where people would post the most shocking, heinous things. And she found this stuff really off-putting but also kind of engrossing.

She started interacting with people in these online spaces, and they made her feel smart. They made her feel validated. She started feeling a sense of community, started wondering if maybe some of these shocking memes might actually contain a kernel of truth. A few months later, she was in a car with some of her new Internet friends headed to Charlottesville, Va., to march with torches in the name of the white race. She'd gone, in a few months, from Obama supporter to fully radicalized white supremacist.

ZOMORODI: OK, so for those of us who just can't wrap our heads around how someone's ideas about the world can change so rapidly...

MARANTZ: Right.

ZOMORODI: ...Like, how does that happen, especially with something like QAnon, which is really an entire mindset?

MARANTZ: Yeah. So it's sort of like any cult. You know, you start with the stuff that sounds less controversial, and then the more and more people get initiated, the more they're prepared to believe more and more outlandish things. So you kind of start with parts of it that are closer to the truth. Like, there was this guy Jeffrey Epstein who was - really was doing all kinds of outrageously terrible things. And he really was friends with Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew and...

ZOMORODI: You're right.

MARANTZ: You know, there really was a conspiracy to cover up those crimes that is still ongoing. And then you kind of go from there to, you know, I bet Hillary was involved. And I also bet Tom Hanks was involved. And I bet Oprah's probably involved. And they all have a dungeon somewhere where they're locking up children and trying to harvest their adrenal glands. And...

ZOMORODI: OK, you lost me with the adrenal glands.

MARANTZ: (Laughter) Well, I think when you start going down that rabbit hole, part of it is engaging in a kind of collective fan fiction. And part of it is, wait. Wait. Wait. But what if this is real? And it's flirting with that line. And, you know, I can get that to some extent.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MARANTZ: I get the thrill of being like, what if there really was an Illuminati? And it's just - to a certain kind of person at a certain desperate moment in their lives or just spend too much time on the Internet, they can't keep those blurry lines straight, and it becomes their entire reality.

ZOMORODI: I can understand how, in a time of financial problems, insecurity, this idea of being part of a movement and having meaning in your life and being, you know, part of, like, the revolucion (ph), right (laughter)...

MARANTZ: Absolutely.

ZOMORODI: Like, that's very exciting. Yeah.

MARANTZ: Yeah - part of the underground, part of the resistance and having secret knowledge that no one else can see except for your compadres. Yeah. It's just bizarre how far it can go.

ZOMORODI: And some of these tropes are, you know, centuries old...

MARANTZ: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...In some ways. They are not new.

MARANTZ: Yeah. I did not expect the fact that I am Jewish to matter in any way. I didn't expect to be talking about things like "Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion" and, like, "Mein Kampf" and stuff. I thought, frankly, that they would be a little more original than that.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MARANTZ: But as it turns out, there are certain tropes that just refuse to go away, and it does a lot of work for people. It helps explain things that are otherwise unexplainable. You know, why is the economy so obviously seemed to be rigged against me? Why can't I find meaningful work? Or why do I have work, but I still don't feel like my life has any purpose? Why - you know, on and on and on with these kind of sometimes unanswerable questions.

And if the answer is because there are ten people in a room somewhere saying, I don't want people to have meaning in their lives, then in a way, that's kind of a comforting explanation because it means that there's at least a nameable reason or an identifiable enemy. And often that's Jews. Often that's women. Often it's just whoever is a visible other in terms of being a person of color or what have you. But I think one of the notable things for me is not that these tropes still exist in the world but the fact that they can be revived in terms of popularity and in terms of salience to the national discourse. That I did find surprising.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it feels as though this idea that a single person switching on a story that changes people's perception of what reality even is has become so commonplace that we are in the midst of an era of very little trust.

MARANTZ: Yes, it is commonplace now. And the companies have had a lot of time to try to figure this out. In some ways, they have. You know, it is no longer OK on Facebook to buy an ad in an American election using rubles as the currency.

ZOMORODI: Right.

MARANTZ: That was a loophole that was open in 2016 that should not have been open, but it was. They did close that loophole. But the larger loophole, which is the entire incentive structure, the entire thing that social media is built to do - that hasn't changed. And, yeah, as a result, we are living in a pretty confused and confusing time.

ZOMORODI: So what do we do in the meantime? Like, how do we fix this at least a little bit?

MARANTZ: Yeah. So a lot of the bigger solutions to this are going to have to be systemic. And the companies are going to have to step up, and it might involve government regulation and all kinds of bigger things. But...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MARANTZ: Until they rebuild and dismantle their business model, there are things that individuals can do. And one of them - I call it being a smart skeptic. So there are things that pass for skepticism online that I think are actually just knee-jerk, contrarian trollery (ph). So you often see people saying, well, I'm just asking for more evidence, and I'm just asking the question. But that is not real skepticism.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MARANTZ: Real skepticism is being open-minded but not being so open-minded that your brain falls out, demanding evidence but not demanding evidence past the time when a question has been settled. If you just sort of say, well, I don't know; you know, everybody says racism is bad, but, like, I'm skeptical of that claim, I don't think skepticism is the best word for what you're doing there. And sometimes there just is consensus on something, and there's a certain cast of mind of a person who just doesn't want to hear that. It's a kind of addiction to feeling like you have secret access to knowledge that, you know, the boundaries of polite society doesn't want you to have.

ZOMORODI: If only we all had that secret access, right?

MARANTZ: Yeah. I mean, it's a thrilling idea. It's just that sometimes the real answer is the answer that most people already believe. And I'm sorry if that's boring, but it just sometimes is the case.

ZOMORODI: That's Andrew Marantz. He's a journalist and staff writer for The New Yorker. You can see his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, technology and deception. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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