Monday, October 14, 2013

Digital Conspiracies

The Internet can offer candid perspectives on reality. The Internet can also lie to you. Sometimes, the line gets blurred between the two.

Tin foil hats exist on the Internet, too.

The Internet is home to both intelligent people and not-so-intelligent people, to honest people and chronically dishonest people. Somewhere, these axes blur together, and you can find the loony fringe. Conspiracy theorists have been around for ages, but like with other things, the Internet has given community into an otherwise isolated and crazy hobby.

Today, we talk about the Internet's corners of conspiracies and the paranormal (and yes, they're fairly similar things).

Perhaps the Internet's first famous conspiracy theorist was Gene Ray, the great mind behind Time Cube. With jarring font sizes, Time Cube explains that earth is cubic and that there are four simultaneous Time points along with four 24-hour days that function harmoniously. The ONEists - those who only believe in one Earth, one day, one self, and so on - have all been dangerously misled by academia, and are not appreciating reality and time for all its cubic glory. I think.

Time Cube is so obviously crazy that it ends up being the most harmless kind of crazy. Gene Ray has had his time to shine in the limelight, getting plenty of media attention, a documentary made about him, and even an invitation to speak at MIT. People have an ironic affection for who he is - a caricature who stands alone in his vision of the world, and an unwitting entertainer. I'd be willing to claim that nobody actually believes Time Cube except for Gene Ray.

In his infinite wisdom.

Some people's crazy beliefs are significantly less harmless. We've spoken on online cults before, and how they have led people to make horrible life decisions. The insanity that drives an online cult is a lot more subtle than Gene Ray's ramblings. One moment, you're learning about individual liberties and Bayesian probability, which are both legitimate and thought-provoking topics. The next moment, you're being told to leave your family and that you should donate money towards developing the singularity and "friendly AI".

This is a fairly common model among these fancier depictions of reality. An ounce of truth usually is present, but the extrapolations from that truth can be wholly insane. This was very strongly exemplified in 2004, during the Indian Ocean tsunami. Members of the website DemocraticUnderground saw the the news and, being morally aligned against the Bush administration, opined that there were "earthquake-causing weapons" responsible for the earthquake.

Political conspiracies find lots of life in the age of the Internet. There is already a major disconnect in how Americans get their political information, which can help foster very bizarre ideas. It should be both telling and humbling that these problems appear on both sides of the political spectrum - 9/11 truthers and Obama birthers are both awful in their own ways.

There are plenty of online outlets for discussing conspiracy theories and paranormal stories, but the epicenter of crazy can probably be found on Infowars.

What, the Onion isn't enough for you?

Infowars is an alternative news site run by Alex Jones, a radio host and documentary filmmaker. His list of supported conspiracies include 9/11 trutherism, the 'faked' moon landing, NASA killing 'thousands of astronauts', the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation actually being a eugenics operation, and many many others. Diehard infowars fans still believe that the failed internet vigilantism following the Boston bombing revealed the truth behind the events, and that blaming the Tsarnaev brothers is a cover-up.

Infowars ranks near the top 1000 most visited websites worldwide on Alexa. Clearly, a lot of people are tuning in to share crackpot theories with one another. Before the Internet, these people's thoughts were likely kept to themselves. Infowars is one example of the uniting power of the online network, albeit a negative example.

Conspiracy theories can get very creative. So creative, that fabricating one can become an art form in and of itself. "Creepypasta" is a form of short story with strong paranormal or conspiratorial themes, designed to disturb the reader. They are the modern analog to "Scary Stories to tell in the Dark", and come in many varieties. Some focus on depicting secret government projects, others try to pervert fond memories from one's childhood, and still others go right for the paranormal.

Horror stories and conspiracy theories are similar beasts. They both feed on the doubt of the reader, starting from a basic level of knowledge and making the wildest inferences on that information. But while conspiracy theories often have the intent to suggest truth-value in their inferences, horror stories are often strictly out to provoke a response in the reader. Sometimes, in the case of screamers, they do so in the most basic way possible, but good online horror stories often aim for greater subtlety.

Though, they may in fact be more similar in function than we think.

The diversity of the online platform has allowed for many different kinds of horror stories. Creepypasta tends to be written in the form of short stories, but you can also find images photoshopped for the sake of being more disturbing, paranormal podcasts, and Blair Witch-esque videos. Memes lampooning the concept have found modest popularity. This variety of media can empower storytellers to fabricate amazing myths. 

Perhaps the most wildly successful of such myths is Slenderman.

Do you see it, in the back?

Slenderman started as a few photoshopped pictures on a 2009 SomethingAwful thread, for a paranormal pictures photoshop contest. He was designed as a mysterious creature, tall and lanky, known to cause distortions in photographs, thought to abduct children. Being in his presence can cause dizziness, sickness, and memory loss.

Word of Slenderman trickled down from SomethingAwful to various other websites, and an online myth began to stretch its tall, frightening legs. The YouTube series Marble Hornets began shortly after the creation of the Slenderman pictures, further fleshing out the Slenderman mythos in an alternate universe where he is known as "the Operator". People began making Slenderman-inspired video games, pitting the player against an invincible, constantly-advancing Slenderman.

Note that the origins of the Slenderman myth are completely documented. Nobody is actually fooled by the Slenderman myth. Yet, here are projects that have caught the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, getting them to actively participate in spreading the story.

At some point, stories like the Slenderman mythos are not about facts anymore. They are about conjuring imagery from the blurred areas of human experience and reason. They are emotional kindling, playing with our imaginations and causing us to feel a fundamental deep creeping sensation. The original creator of the Slenderman pictures had this to say on Slenderman:
"Before you had angels and succubi, and then ghosts and spirits, today we have shadow people and inter-dimensional beings. The Slender Man, and other newly created entities, are just the newest addition in the progression of a long, and very real, human tradition. You’ve seen him, now you can’t unsee him." - Victor Surge, KYM interview
The same can easily be argued for conspiracy theories. At some point, conspiracy theories are no longer about the veracity of the information. They instead become a way of telling a story that inspires raw emotion among its captive audience.

It never actually mattered if 9/11 really was an inside job (it wasn't). The mere idea of it, though possible in the loosest sense of the word, invokes vivid imagery of a grand narrative behind the scenes. It inspires feelings of shock, fear, anger, and despair among its believers. A certain kind of person latches on to those emotions, and suddenly the narrative guides their values and policies.

You can begin your theory from somewhere honest, and you can come up with a story by exploring the possible outcomes from that starting point. Suspend your disbelief for too long, however, and you can end up deceiving yourself - and others - about the likelihood of your own theory. It takes a sufficiently intelligent person to draw a conspiracy together, but it takes a certain lack of self-awareness to let that conspiracy be what you consider truth.

And the Internet, a place for open expression and a haven for the self-absorbed, has given a way for the most devoted of conspiracy theorists to dive as deeply into the rabbit hole as they'd like. People like Alex Jones somehow make it into mainstream news on occasion, though luckily they are depicted as fringe.

Let us hope that they remain fringe. Horror stories can tease out our primal emotions because their content can be very graphic and intense. We should not play with narratives of reality so haphazardly.

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