How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist

The first step is recognizing that conspiracies do, in fact, exist

Back in April 2019, when QAnon had established itself among the fringe far-right of the internet but had yet to fully spill out into public consciousness, my friend Eric sent me an email with the subject line “Lifting the Veil: The Pedophocracy.” It was a link to Lifting the Veil: An Investigative History of the United States Pathocracy, a 2015 book by Tim Silver of obscure origins that exists primarily as PDFs passed around on the internet. It begins with the history of the CIA’s MK-Ultra project and moves on to increasingly elaborate theories about a sinister cabal of pedophiles based in Oklahoma. Eric knew that I researched conspiracy theories and had sent it to me thinking that it might be useful as an example of something to investigate further.

The story, in brief, was this: In 1990, four young people in Oklahoma alleged that they had been abducted as part of a child sex-trafficking ring; two quickly recanted their allegations under oath, and another was eventually prosecuted for perjury in her grand jury testimony. But the story caught the eye of Noreen Gosch, whose son Johnny had been kidnapped in 1984. Silver’s book, along with the 2014 documentary Who Took Johnny, tells both the story of young Gosch’s abduction and his mother’s unproven allegations that he was taken by this same Oklahoma sex-trafficking ring.

Eric is my friend. He’s also well-educated, genuinely empathetic, and fails to fit the mold usually ascribed to conspiracy theorists. He’s not a Republican ideologue; his politics, if anything, lean libertarian-ish. Everything about the book he sent me seemed thin, but I was reluctant to simply dismiss it out of hand. Instead, reading through the materials he’d forwarded and doing my own research — I was, at that point, writing a book about the historical origins of conspiracy theories — I lit upon a different set of questions I could ask about these conspiracies. I turned away from knee-jerk dismissals and appeals to authority (mainstream media, science, or government). Mostly, I wanted to understand for myself how such a belief system is structured and how it takes root. What emerged for me was an understanding of how a conspiracy theory can serve a basic psychological need for someone that goes beyond facticity and how one might go about responding to that need.

As someone who tends to get asked a lot about conspiracy theories, the first thing I’ve learned is to not dismiss them outright. If you want to engage someone on conspiracy theories, you have to start from a place of trust. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with anything, but present yourself as someone who has an open mind. It’s often sometimes of strategic value to simply respond that it’s possible or that you’ll check it out. Anyone who subscribes to these beliefs already has a significant emotional investment in the topic. For all of QAnon’s partisan hatred and thinly veiled anti-Semitic dog whistles, it is also a narrative of child abduction and abuse by people in power. In the minds of QAnon devotees, to dismiss such (far-fetched, unproven) stories out of hand may imply that you’re dismissive of the problem of abuse itself.

The second thing I do is affirm that conspiracies do exist, particularly those involving sexual abuse and child trafficking. In my conversations with Eric, I made repeated references to Watergate and Iran-Contra, two government-level conspiracies that were eventually unmasked, and to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. I referenced the allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein. I talked about movies like Spotlight and All the President’s Men, the recent documentary on Epstein, and The Insider, Michael Mann’s film on the tobacco lobby. On the one hand, I wanted to demonstrate my willingness to entertain conspiracy theories as a topic by referring whenever possible to actual conspiracies. On the other, I wanted to shift the conversation to how actual conspiracies work.

Real-world conspiracies, after all, share any number of commonalities, particularly in how they’re eventually brought to light, and if QAnon has any shred of truth to it, these patterns should also apply here. And so again and again, I find myself saying to believers, “I don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but if you were right, I would expect the following to happen,” referring to any number of established conspiracies whose unmasking all followed a similar pattern. My goal is usually to press the believer’s own recognition of internal contradictions so that the belief itself gets harder to sustain.

I tend to stress how quickly things unravel once they’re first brought to light. The first article by Bob Woodward on Watergate was June 20, 1972, three days after the break-in; Nixon resigned just over two years later. The Globe’s Spotlight story ran on January 6, 2002; Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as head of the Boston archdiocese by the end of that year. Weinstein was charged within eight months of the first stories by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in the New York Times and Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker. (None of these represent perfect justice, of course, but they indicate how quickly the wheels turn once things are in motion.) Whereas, in conspiratorial formulations, there’s often an exhortation to “stay tuned.” QAnon, like a lot of conspiracy theories, bears with it the endlessly deferred structure of the Rapture.

Once an actual conspiracy is finally revealed, emboldened victims come forward. After the initial reports by the New York Times and the New Yorker, dozens of other actresses came forth and alleged that Weinstein assaulted them. But in the case of the Oklahoma “pedophocracy,” the allegations never triggered a flood of subsequent allegations by other victims despite their contention that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children had been abused. In 30 years, no one else has come forward with similar allegations.

Likewise, QAnon alleges thousands of victims yet has produced none. Timothy Charles Holmseth, a conspiracist who claims to be part of a (nonexistent) Pentagon Pedophile Task Force, alleged in May that this same task force rescued some 35,000 children from an underground network of prisons beneath New York’s Central Park. Set aside the fact that most experts agree that the epidemic of child abduction is significantly inflated to begin with, an even more important question to ask is: Who are these victims, and where are their families? Where are the obituaries, the memorials, the tearful mothers on the steps of the Capitol holding press conferences, demanding justice? “There’s not one of them out there who said, ‘Yeah, we’re glad our child was rescued from this giant underground war,’” Craig Sawyer, an anti-sex-trafficking activist and critic of Holmseth, told the Daily Beast.

When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. My goal is always to move the conspiracy theory out of the realm of abstraction and into the concrete: What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?

After all, conspiracies take work, and the bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved. Carl Bernstein’s first encounter with Judy Hoback Miller, the bookkeeper for the Committee for the Reelection of the President, would later be remembered by both Bernstein and Woodward as the turning point in their investigation. Miller, who would later say she “felt frustrated” that she didn’t think “the truth was coming out,” provided the reporters with crucial information. At a 40th anniversary event of the break-in in 2012, Woodward and Bernstein argued that Miller was more important than Mark “Deep Throat” Felt.

Nixon historian Stanley Kutler called people like Miller the “so-called ‘minor people’” — the secretaries, security guards, and other low-level employees who worked behind the scenes for the big players who were often the first to talk. Such people are rarely ideologues nor are they being paid enough. The complexities of QAnon likewise would require a massive number of such minor people; people who, it stands to reason, have no ideological commitment to such horrors but are nonetheless employed in carrying them out. Such people ought to be easy to get to talk. When no such whistleblowers emerge, it speaks to the thinness of the story.

It’s not just low-level employees. Keeping victims silent also requires leverage. For years, the tobacco lobby successfully used nondisclosure agreements and other legal strategies to stifle leaks. In the case of Weinstein, as well as with the Catholic Church, the conspiracies were kept away from the public for a long time because those figures in power had a specific kind of leverage over their victims: Weinstein could make or break careers; the Church wielded the unique power that spiritual authorities often have over their victims. Other forms of pressure are cruder: The mafia’s spectacular assassinations of would-be stool pigeons display the ultimate leverage. But in all these cases, even with the very real threat of death, people eventually talked.

For an increasingly high-visibility conspiracy like QAnon, silencing whistleblowers or victims would require a kind of leverage that goes beyond all of this. Perhaps such a thing exists, but your average QAnon believer should be made to articulate what it is and how it’s functioned so well for so long. Rather than appeal to mainstream authority like the media or the government, or to simply denounce QAnon or whatever as implausible, it’s far more effective to let a believer do that work themselves by helpfully suggesting all the specifics that they’re coached not to consider. After all, even highly organized conspiracies with limitless government backing and resources can’t stay hidden forever. The CIA’s extraordinary rendition program from the early days of the war on terror was documented by none other than hobbyist plane spotters, who noted the tail numbers of flights taking off and landing. The more wide-reaching a conspiracy — the more victims it has, the more perpetrators involved, the wider geographical distance covered, etc. — the more traces it will leave. A conspiracy theory that is widely hypothesized and yet unproven, in other words, requires a level of human infallibility that we have never heretofore seen.

This is also an important part of the allure of a conspiracy theory — it invites a strange kind of optimism about human agency. There’s something perversely soothing about a conspiracy theory, even one utterly malignant and diabolical, because it presupposes a world without chaos or randomness. Conspiracists believe in these theories because they think they’re true, in part, but also because they find them, on some level, reassuring. And this is perhaps more essential to understand than the actual mechanisms of the conspiracy theory itself because once an idea is providing important moral pleasure, it rarely matters how ludicrous the suppositions are.

People believe in conspiracy theories because they offer them a way of understanding the world, a way that makes sense and provides some kind of meaning for them. Disabusing people of conspiracy theories also involves understanding what psychological benefit such theories offer people and substituting something else that will meet that need.

For Eric, I think, it came down to a sincere concern for the well-being of children. When I asked him recently if he was still following the story of the Oklahoma “pedophocracy,” he initially deflected. He still seemed to subscribe to some of the elements of the story, but he seemed far more interested in talking about another documentary he’d seen recently, Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s Rewind, released in 2019.

Neulinger’s father had taken hundreds of hours of home video footage of his family when Neulinger was a child while at the same time turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse Neulinger was suffering under the hands of his two uncles and a cousin. Rewind tells the story of Neulinger watching that old footage as an adult, reconstructing a story of buried family trauma through seemingly inconsequential home movies.

Rewind is a harrowing, poignant, and powerful story of child abuse, one that lacks the mechanics of some elaborate scheme by a global cabal. Instead, it centers on the far-too-common horror of intrafamilial abuse. By turning the conversation to Neulinger’s film, we were able to focus on the core emotional trigger for Eric — the endangerment of children — without lapsing into unprovable conspiracy theories. It allowed him an outlet to voice his concerns and his empathy without having to argue for secret cabals and byzantine networks that failed to stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

Failed histories, histories of failure. Author of four books: The Unidentified, Ghostland, Afterlives of the Saints, and Cranioklepty.

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