Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash, Netflix and Amazon.
On the afternoon of May 10, the First Amendment Center, Future Tense, and New America's Education Policy Program and Open Technology Institute will host "Fact or Fiction: What Will It Take to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation in the Digital Age?" in Washington, D.C. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
As you read these words, the world's most powerful minds are unwittingly perfecting distribution systems for weapons of mass destruction. Unaware of the disastrous consequences, they plan new ways to maximize their reach, exposing men, women, and children to high-tech versions of contagious viruses.
Don't believe me? If you have Amazon, you can watch the viruses squirming in their petri dish, eager to be released. Type "vaccines" into Prime Video. You won't just get one result—you'll be able to choose from Shoot Em' Up: The Truth About Vaccines, We Don't Vaccinate!, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, and The Greater Good, among many, many others.
Were someone putting on a film fest in hopes of sparking a vaccine-preventable epidemic, this is the list of movies they'd screen. And what better vector for distributing misinformation than Amazon, which has spread into nearly 50 percent of American households? With Amazon Prime, you don't even have to pay extra to watch them. Allowing these films on their platform is a jaw-dropping breach of ethics and security, a craven decision to put lives at risk for the sake of clicks.
Although the misinformation in these films is incredibly dangerous, the real weapon of mass destruction is the rhetoric that makes their message persuasive. All of them use a time-tested cocktail of anti-elitism and half-truths that's as effective as it is formulaic: the conspiracy theory.
The constituent elements are simple. Identify a powerful villain, in this case Big Pharma. Connect that villain to traditional sources of authority: the academy, the media, the government. Portray them as hopelessly compromised. Exaggerate genuine problems (some people are corrupted by money) into extravagant paranoia (EVERYONE IS CORRUPTED BY MONEY). Divide the world into cowardly sheeple and courageous truth-seekers. Ask the audience which side they want to be on. Offer up secret salvific knowledge. Rinse, repeat.
When it comes to conspiracy documentaries on streaming platforms, anti-vaccine films are only the tip of the needle. On Amazon Prime, there's also Alex Jones' expose of the New World Order, Endgame, as well as other Jones films like Police State II: The Takeover, Police State III: Total Enslavement, and Police State 4: The Rise of FEMA, which abandons Roman numerals, presumably, because they are tied to a totalitarian empire once bent on world domination. (For some reason, Police State 2000, the first film in the tetralogy, is not on Prime. Making watchers start in the middle of the series is just rude.) If you want to go old-school, you can check out the Sept. 11 conspiracy classic Zeitgeist and its follow-ups, Zeitgeist: Addendum and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.
Once you've watched one of these, the recommendation algorithm kicks into gear. Without much effort you can immerse yourself in a sea of conspiracies, everything from outlandish looks at aliens to mainstream films about our food system. Despite tonal variation—some are tongue-in-cheek, others deadly serious—all of them share the same narrative structure. They depict fairy tale worlds of good and evil, populated exclusively by noble heroes and black-hatted villains. None attempt to portray dissenting perspectives except in caricature or as flimsy foils. Unsurprisingly, the positive user comments are uncannily similar, as if cribbed from Jones' private diary: a zombie horde of enlightened viewers complaining in unison that the rest of humanity has been brainwashed by Big [Insert Villain Here].
Although Amazon is by far the worst offender, other streaming services are also part of the problem. In a terrific call-to-arms for the Ringer in 2017, Kate Knibbs pointed out that Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu offer a selection of wild-eyed Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy films from the Zeitgeist trilogy to the more recent A Conspiracy of Lies: Flight 370 to 911 (the New World Order and aliens). Classified as documentaries, they appropriate the authority of legitimate films like Ken Burns documentaries that show up next to them. For Knibbs, there's a clear solution:
These companies all acquire distribution rights to films and then bundle them together in streaming packages. Unlike Facebook and Google, they have always stressed the ideas of curation and gatekeeping, highlighting their sophisticated recommendation services, which are meant to separate high-quality film and television from the junk. They are proud arbiters and sorters of content. There is no reason they could not reclassify and properly label 9/11 conspiracy documentaries as paranoid camp.
Part of me is completely on board. That part wants to implore you to call out egregious offenders on social media and contact your streaming services to demand a better system. Like Facebook and Google, these companies shouldn't be allowed to profit as gatekeepers without taking responsibility for what gets through the gates—after all, as Knibbs argues, they already restrict pornography so it's not a question of whether to censor, but rather what.
But another part of me thinks this approach is a Band-Aid solution that could distract from broader issues and might even make things worse. Like conspiracy theories themselves, focusing exclusively on the platforms exploits the human tendency to blame collective suffering on a single malevolent agent. Unfortunately, most societywide problems are emergent properties of complex systems composed of many agents, with many different vulnerabilities. This means solutions are necessarily complicated and multifaceted, and require mobilization on multiple fronts.
In an important sense, we—the public and our government—control the streaming services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos doesn't think pornography is more dangerous than conspiracies; the public does. He's a pawn in the hands of market and cultural forces. If we don't address our own complicity in the proliferation of these rhetorical viruses, new ones will emerge organically, and the next generation of Joneses will turn their predecessors' exile into martyrdom.
Ultimately, demand for conspiracy theories is a symptom of our inability to face the world's imperfections. It's existentially taxing to recognize that the systems we inhabit are inherently flawed and not fully controlled by anyone. Better, instead, to postulate systems that are perfect—or would be, if hidebound traditionalists and corrupt leaders got out of the way.
In a strange paradox, these stories about powerful puppeteers are really about empowerment. The political scientist Joseph Parent has called them "emotional poultices," a means of coping with painful circumstances outside one's control. That's why they are especially attractive to people trapped in poverty, to people in prisons, and to someone like Jones, for whom the world itself feels like a Prison Planet.
Focusing exclusively on the platforms exploits the human tendency to blame collective suffering on a single malevolent agent.
This is most apparent when the conspiracy theory isn't tied up with a hot button sociopolitical issue. Take Patient Seventeen (which is on Netflix and available for rental or purchase on Amazon Video), a documentary about a surgeon who removes tiny alien-installed implants from his patients. The film opens with a voiceover from director Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer. "Who are we?" he intones. "Are we alone, or is the answer simply stranger than we can think?" Suddenly viewers feel as if the resolution of existential questions might be one incredible secret away. It's not that there aren't answers—it's that the answers are too crazy for most people to handle, so they get suppressed. Or in Lockyer's candid description: "I seek to weaponize your curiosity. And if you're ready to suspend your own prejudice, welcome to the world of extraordinary beliefs."
Understanding conspiracy theories in this way makes sense of the anti-elitism running through them, which lashes out at standard forms of knowledge production that fail to provide complete physical and existential security. Their shrill apocalyptic rhetoric (see the first paragraph of this piece) taps into deep insecurities. Taking a "just asking questions" stance, as many do, heightens the effect by setting up an implied contrast between the films' earnest truth-seeking and elites who can't be bothered with it.
"What if the history you were taught in school was all a lie?" suggests the narrator of Unsealed: Conspiracy Files (Netflix) in its opening episode. "If we are headed towards an apocalypse that our government knows about ... what can you do to save yourself?" In the space of 10 seconds, he threatens damnation and promises salvation—attainable through nothing more than rejecting authority.
"Has traditional science been able to explain why the pyramids were built?" asks Carmen Boulter, host of The Pyramid Code, a conspiracy-style Netflix series that reveals the truth about ancient Egyptians. The answer, of course, is no. "Traditional science," a vague stand-in for academic authority writ large, is woefully myopic. But fear not! Boulter has the real answers "they" don't want you to know, and it turns out ancient Egypt, rightly understood, holds the keys to solving all of society's ills.
And then there's Jesse Ventura, ex-governor of Minnesota and former host of Conspiracy Theory. Season 3, Episode 1 is about global warming. Ventura, grimly: "There's more to this global warming than what our media and our government and everything is telling us." Narrator: "POWER. MONEY. CONTROL."
These rhetorical tactics—mind-viruses, if you will—flourish in mainstream films that would never (and should never) be candidates for censorship. Cowspiracy and What the Health are two popular vegan-advocacy films on Netflix that propose controversial theories about global warming and diet-related disease, respectively, arguing that "51 percent of global greenhouse emissions come from animal agriculture" and "eating eggs is as bad as smoking cigarettes." Both claims egregiously misrepresent mainstream scientific consensus—a consensus, it should be noted, that includes scientists who are gravely concerned about the negative impacts of meat. But once you've been infected, their rebuttals won't matter: We know where they come from. Big Meat has everyone in their pockets, even the environmental groups.
To "weaponize curiosity," as Lockyer put it, all you have to do is expose people to weaponized narratives: stories designed to bypass our critical-thinking faculties by satisfying our need for clarity, simplicity, and existential certainty. At Arizona State University's Center on the Future of War, we have identified weaponized narrative as one of greatest threats to national security and global stability. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) ISIS propaganda and Russian disinformation use the same archetypes and plotlines as Vaxxed, Endgame, and Cowspiracy.
Censorship can only deal with the most blatant offenders on the most high-profile platforms, and it runs the serious risk of reinforcing the truth of the underlying narrative. It really is what "they" don't want you to know! To secure ourselves we need a massive movement, a bipartisan effort to immunize the public against the archetypal engine of weaponized narrative. Like the problem itself, our solution must be systemic. In addition to asking for top-down help from streaming services, I can think of three good places to start:
• Beginning in middle school, children should be trained to understand manipulative rhetoric, and it should continue to be a central feature of humanities education at all levels. The fact that millions of people can see the title Cowspiracy and think, "Wow, seems legit!" is an indictment of our educational system.
• As a public, we must embrace and celebrate the virtue of questioning our own most deeply held narratives. Confirmation bias is widely recognized as a distorting force in people's thinking, and there is no way to eliminate it completely. But like any form of bias, we can pursue strategies for mitigating it. Psychological research has revealed some promising practices that should be actively implemented by schools and individuals alike.
• Activists should refrain from an ends-justify-the-means approach to weaponized narratives. Cartoon villains and simplified causality ("follow the money") may be effective in the short term, but only at the cost of throwing corrosive acid on our collective critical thinking abilities. Telling a more complicated story doesn't let evil off the hook—it helps us identify it more accurately.
The streaming platforms can help. But their approach needs to go beyond censorship and fact-checking like Facebook's "disputed" tag, which, predictably, served only to reinforce people's worldviews due to something known as the backfire effect. These are incredibly powerful companies that produce original movies and television series. I'd like to see them produce high-quality content focused on developing our critical-thinking abilities. Instead of a series about current conspiracies, a series about the history of failed ones—distant enough from viewers that they won't feel threatened. Instead of a documentary about aliens, a documentary that explores why believing in aliens is so tempting. A gripping primer on weaponized narrative told through an inside look at terrorists and totalitarians. And then? After someone watches Zeitgeist, the algorithm should serve up an Amazon Original that explores how Hitler used the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to manipulate German citizens—the vaccine alongside the virus.
In a country badly compromised by conspiracy theories and fake news, it's hard to understand why these potential solutions haven't already been implemented ... or is it? What if elites actually want to keep us captivated by insane stories, distracted by nonsense and empowered by idiocy, while they continue to accumulate political and financial power? What if that's why they call for cuts to the humanities, and demonize hard-working educators and journalists who stand in the way of their New World Order?