A Note to Megyn Kelly & NBC: How to Talk About Conspiracy Theories

It looks like Megyn Kelly’s interview with Alex Jones will go forward on NBC this weekend. I am sympathetic to those who think this mainstream exposure will help to legitimize Jones but, at the same time, as an ethnographer I have often made the case for studying people whose views are abhorrent. In fact, I showed a clip from Jones’ show in my class last term.

The validity of NBC’s choice will depend, in some measure, on the context with which the interview is presented. Will Jones just be given an opportunity to create a false, apparently respectable, impression with an audience who might not already be familiar with him?  Or will they air segments like this or this that show him to be… well… unhinged?  Will they combine the interview with context from people who study conspiracy theories and help us think clearly about them? Will they explain what’s wrong with them and explain their appeal?  Will NBC use the opportunity to help people learn how to evaluate what they see on the internet for reliability—how to spot “fake news?”

Rather than weigh in on the network’s decision, as a religious studies scholar I’d like to offer some framing from my Religion and Popular Culture class last term, where we studied a series of conspiracy theories from the Illuminati to Pizzagate.

As we often do in religious studies, we started with definitions. Importantly, there is such a thing as a conspiracy. People do conspire to commit crimes, to gain power, and probably to other ends. The difference between a conspiracy, and what we call a conspiracy theory (of the kind Alex Jones promotes, like his contention that the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary was staged) is that conspiracy theories seek to explain events not merely in terms of human actors but in terms of all-inclusive mythic narratives or worldviews, rooted in a fundamental division between Good and Evil. Conspiracy theories depend on the plausibility of a well-organized group, not only organized to achieve their evil goals, but disciplined enough to keep that secret from everyone except an especially insightful few. The forces of evil are framed as an existential threat to our culture and way of life. Conspiracy theorists propose a world that is both disconnected from and more orderly than reality.

There are some basic assumptions in conspiracy theories and once you learn to look for them, the conspiracy theory is easy to spot: conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable closed systems, and counter evidence is delegitimized, in advance, by an aspect of the theory. This makes it difficult to challenge the theories with people who have already embraced them. Conspiracists assert that nothing happens by accident, nothing is as it seems, and everything is connected.

And what about those people who embrace them—how does that happen? First, the plausibility of the theories depends, and is reinforced by, sub-cultures that are broader than just thought systems. This is where Alex Jones comes in. There are social networks in which his view of the world is shared.  These include online groups, but I’ve also seen his website promoted at Tea Party events and other political gatherings, and even among church groups.

Conspiracy theories rely on what historian Richard Hofstadter called “political paranoia.” They are intensely rationalistic and appear compelling as they operate in opposition to prevailing views. They are hostile to authority and expertise, though they mimic mainstream knowledge as they renounce it. Stigmatization is taken as evidence for truth. And there are some people for whom this contrarian character is a key part of the appeal. For a believer, there is a special status to being “in the know” and smarter than the experts. Hofstadter argued that this is deeply American, so maybe we are all implicated.

Of course, the “mother of all conspiracies” is apocalypticism—end times theologies rooted in interpretations of the Bible, especially the books of Daniel and Revelation, which might help explain the appeal of conspiracy theories among some Christians. In these narratives, a cosmic battle between Good and Evil are played out; Good and Evil exist as not only cosmic forces but also as real human beings aligned with God or Satan. These Christians situate themselves as living in the “end times”—the culmination of History—as well as God’s  chosen, the Faithful Remnant, the ones “in the know.”  Apocalyptic theologies overlap with conspiracies but are not synonymous with them; that is, not all conspiracy theories are apocalyptic and not all apocalyptic theologies are conspiracy theories. But Alex Jones brings them together powerfully.

If NBC uses the interview with Jones to help people understand conspiracy theories—how they work, to whom they appeal and why, and the reasons why they are not reliable interpretations of events—then airing it can be a responsible choice. Unfortunately, I suspect that’s unlikely to be the case.