How the Internet Changed Conspiracy Theories

...and other topics from DigBoston's recent interview with me


Today DigBoston published an interview with me about conspiracy theories, pegged to my book The United States of Paranoia. Here's an excerpt:

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Q: Another theme in your writing is that belief in conspiracy theories isn't limited to modern times, but has been part of American culture for the country's entire history. In your book, you also mention that the internet has allowed conspiracy theories to flourish. Do you think belief in conspiracy theories is more common now than ever before, or do you think there have been more paranoid periods in American history?

A: I don't think the Internet has made conspiratorial thinking more common. But it certainly has had several effects.

First of all, just as the Internet has sped up the news cycle in general, it has sped up the generation and transmission of conspiracy theories.

Second, the Internet has made those theories more public. Some of the historical conspiracy rumors that I write about in the book were not discussed in the press, or at least weren't discussed in any newspapers or magazines that I got my hands on. We know about them because sociologists and folklorists went out, interviewed people, and wrote down the stories people told them. Nowadays, a lot of that person-to-person transmission happens online, where it's easier for outsiders to observe it. This helps create the illusion that conspiracy thinking is more common than before.

And third, because that storytelling happens in a more public space, it's easier for different subcultures' conspiracy stories to mix together. That mixing was certainly known to happen before the Internet, but the Net made it much easier—suddenly hippies and militiamen and black nationalists and so on who might never encounter each other in real life could be reading the same forum and absorbing the other groups' tales.

Other topics covered include what to do when someone calls you a conspiracy theorist, which disreputable conspiracy theories I think might have some truth to them, and my answer to the question, "If you had the chance to direct your own conspiracy-themed movie, what would it be about?" You can read the whole thing here.