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Traversing the Conspiracy Theory Spectrum

Platform capitalism accelerates political polarisation, nudging would-be conspiracists towards ever more outlandish beliefs. But what if the weird stuff is hiding us from the actual conspiracies? Jing Yi Teo and Nels Frye unpack the logic behind the conspiracy theory spectrum.



Sven Loven - Oberon, 2017

Sven Loven, Oberon, 2017. Courtesy the artist

As a teenager, I was embarrassingly conscious of the food I ate. It still isn’t clear to me where the determination to pack sweet potato salads into lunchboxes for school came from, but I’m proud to declare that I am no longer that quinoa-worshipper. Recently, whilst discussing fast food cravings with my partner, we wondered how McNuggets were made — no, really made. My 16-year-old self was revived and an anti-corporation rant unfurled out of my subconscious: McNuggets are made of unthinkable chicken parts, that’s why you can’t see meat fibres in the nuggets, don’t you know better? I reached for my handy truth-teller — my iPhone — and searched for a video on Youtube that would prove my point. To no one’s surprise, a variety of postulations appeared under the most-watched results, but the infamous pink slime that occupied my memory only appeared second to Grant Imahora, the late Mythbusters host, visiting a McDonald’s facility and proving before my incredulous eyes that McNuggets are in fact made of real chicken meat .[1]

Issue 4: Platforms, was meant to be self-reflexive from the start. On one hand, as a platform for critical theorists, inquisitive artists and cultural instigators, SO-FAR features voices that sieve out concerns in technology such as data biases, algorithmic governance and surveillance capitalism. On the other hand, Big Tech’s dominance over day-to-day civil activities and contemporary culture is also a point of deflection for far-right communities such as QAnon followers who feel oppressed by the content moderation rules of Facebook and Twitter. Speaking with business consultant and foreign policy writer Nels Frye surfaced counter-intuitive contradictions, which reminded me that platform capitalism tends to silo our thinking into echo chambers, while the complexities of postmodern society require an occasional check on the big picture. In this conversation, the big picture hinges on the “conspiracy theory spectrum”. As Imahora would have me aware, few of us are exempt from the lures of conspiracy.

Sven Loven - German Intellectual in Hell, 2021

Sven Loven, German Intellectual in Hell, 2021. Courtesy the artist

Jing Yi Teo: Let me be upfront. When planning out this Chapter, titled “Churn”, I wanted to cover the spread of communities over digital platforms, including the vile ones. The most obvious example of that is QAnon, and the wider spread of conspiracy theories, particularly in America. Can you give me a bit of background about yourself?

Nels Frye: The usual Google search would bring you to my writings for The New York Post . While at the University of Chicago, I was editor-in-chief of The Criterion: A Journal of Conservative Thought . Although I wasn’t terribly fond of Republicans or those Ayn Rand types, I just absolutely cannot abide — then and now — the scolding, preachy American left.

Let’s be honest, our righteous left-leaning corporatists and regimists would put me squarely on the conspiracy theory spectrum. Maybe I don't believe in various weird stuff about vampire paedophiles (although there are some elements of truth, considering Epstein, no?). I would say that I take a more moderate view — where things are less of a conspiracy and more of a set of random occurrences that have led to certain outcomes. It’s sort of boring to just be another person analysing the internet, so I talk to real people. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who would say, “I’m a follower of QAnon,” but I know people further along on the conspiracy theory spectrum. Especially out in the deeper countryside, some have strange views, like the vaccine having microchips in it. But calling them conspiracy theorists is, of course, part of the conspiracy. The regime has been calling these people conspiracy theorists for over 50 years. Anyway, the point is, I know lots of people that have alternative, unacceptable, viewpoints.

JYT: “Alternative” to what? Do you mean to say that “conspiracy” is not necessarily a negative term?

NF: “The regime” — from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to the media – lies. That’s hardly a novel perspective, whether we are looking at Iraq or anything else. When you look back now at the conspiracy theories over the last few years, many things that were previously only suspected have been confirmed in the real world. So, this is a very, very good time for conspiracy theorists. Anyway, the word “conspiracy” has been vilified, but I think the ridiculousness of many of these conspiracies serve the interests of the regime. When I meet the serious conspiracy theorists, I tell them that all their weird shit is a distraction from the real conspiracies, of which there are many.

It plays out well for the regime to say that there are conspiracy theorists everywhere. Pharmaceutical companies pour hundreds of millions of dollars a year into lobbying and advertising — I think that’s a little scary. Is that not a real conspiracy? The same person who pours hundreds of millions into getting Democrats elected also owns The Atlantic , Axios and a major share in Mother Jones . She also probably has a direct line to Apple. Is that not a kind of real conspiracy? But the QAnon people don’t talk much about this. They prefer weirder stuff that is a distraction from the real conspiracies occurring everyday right in front of us.

Sven Loven - Descent, 2021

Sven Loven, Descent, 2021. Courtesy the artist

JYT: The shift in governance to private tech companies is actually a recurring issue on this publication. When you talk about the government, are you referring to the current (Biden) administration, or the US government in general ?

NF: I suppose I am just talking about the idea of “the establishment”, which is all of these institutions combined. Mencius Moldbug, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, whose real name is Curtis Yarvin captured this in his description of “the Cathedral” .[2] When we say “they” are doing something, for the extreme conspiracy theorists “they” would be QAnon, or the lizard people [3] or something like that, but for Moldbug, the cathedral includes everything from Harvard University to the arms of the state, like the CIA. So no, it’s not this administration, although this administration is part of it. Silicon Valley has also become part of the regime or Cathedral. I think that has really helped a lot of conspiracy theories go from being non-mainstream to mainstream views — like with mine. The specifics of QAnon may be ridiculous but the kernel of truth that makes me feel sympathetic toward its believers is the deep suspicion of the establishment or Cathedral.

Another factor is that America has a unified education system, which has created a generation of people under a certain age who think in very similar ways, and those people are now starting to control the levers of power.

JYT: I don’t follow the link between America’s education system and conspiracies. Can you explain?

NF: I recommend an article by David Brooks in The Atlantic recently, titled “How the Bobos Broke America”.[4] The article is basically saying that the “bobos” — shorthand for bohemian-bourgeois — are the cultural elites dominating media, tech and urban lifestyle, who have given birth to another young generation of people rather similar to themselves. Armed with the influence of social media, they have spurned the working classes who are made to feel unrepresented and insecure. Brooks has done a great job of defining the various socio-economic classes in America today, and I think you can experience it in real life if you get beyond New York, Boston and San Francisco.

Sven Loven - Bazooka Abōn, 2017

Sven Loven, Bazooka Abōn, 2017. Courtesy the artist

JYT: You said at the start that you tend to find more hardcore conspiracists in the countryside. The idea that the deeper you go out into the countryside, the stranger and more extreme the views, exemplifies influential gender theorist Jack Halberstam’s concept of “metronormativity”: a fear of the rural which is “laden with menace”.[5] The rural is continuously devalued while the urban is conflated with progress, wealth and libertarian ethos. Halberstam used this term to signify the imbalance of queer visibility, but on a broader basis it is a reminder to question the entwinement of cultural “openness” — to borrow Brooks’ perspective — with urban ideals. What’s your view on that?

NF: The distinction between rural and urban is less clear in America than it might be in China or Europe. A common way to distinguish the American rural from the urban is to consider the size of the plots of land. Some experts suggest it is the economic function of the place that should determine whether it is urban or rural, but that can become rather hazy as well. Are people that are further from major cities more isolated? Of course, but the average family in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles that has to drive everywhere may not have many meaningful interactions with people in their immediate community, since they go from their garage directly into the house. This isolation means that people living in metropolitan areas can be quite close-minded and provincial as well.

You can certainly say that people in places like Boston or New York are more sophisticated when it comes to travel, food, taste in furniture and all the other markings of cosmopolitanism, but that doesn’t mean they are more tolerant. Affluent urbanites on the left – the self-labelled “progressives” – would never set foot near a fat bearded tattooed man fishing with his brutish looking sons; they go into conniptions just hearing about people like that, and they don’t reside in the same neighbourhoods as lower class minorities they claim to want to help.

I would even go as far as to say that these conspiracy theorists are more open to new ideas that contradict the ones they have than the “progressives”. As a cisgender white male, I’m afraid to say anything around younger college-educated people in America, but I would have no such hesitation to adopt the liberal position when talking with a Trump supporter, or a more conventional stance when with a conspiracy theorist.

Sven Loven - The Egoist Rider

Sven Loven, The Egoist Rider, 2018. Courtesy the artist

JYT: Brooks’ article also points out the populist sentiment that Big Tech sides with the Democrats, the so-called “culturally enlightened”. It was one of the most interesting points raised in the article for me because our publication spends so much time digging into how Big Tech can do — or could have done — better, care more, build more equitable futures. We saw the peak of this conflation of progressive values with the tech oligarchy in 2020 when Twitter and Facebook finally tightened their grip on fake news and extreme rightist content leading up to the election. It ushered Trump supporters and QAnon believers, who felt siloed, to Parler[6], an app celebrating “free speech”, which was ultimately deplatformed . Have you heard of or been on Parler? Do you think that a dedicated, somewhat isolated platform like this is what this community wants?

NF: I’ve been on Parler. It’s not a particularly good app and it suffers from the usual problem of emerging social media platforms, which is the lack of widespread buy-in or network effects. In short, it’s hard to find your friends there. I’ve also been supporting and have invested a little in an app that a friend is building that seeks to bring many of the strengths of WeChat to the US without being controlled by Big Tech, the Democrat Party and subservient Republicans (the “ Uniparty [7]), or the cathedral as Moldbug calls it. The challenge is that even the cloud — where you might store data — is controlled by Amazon. It might be that in order to be truly secure from the reach of the Uniparty, dissident platforms would have to be based overseas.

There is tremendous demand for platforms free of the Uniparty and Big Tech, but at the same time, conservative and opposition voices are still present and even successful on Instagram and Facebook, as well as in the form of podcasts and Substack newsletters. The power and conformity of mainstream media probably adds to the success of these individual voices. It’s possible that the main tech platforms know not to be too aggressive in their censorship and deplatforming, so there is a question about whether alternative platforms can succeed.

Education is also a possible area for new entrants that cater to dissident voices. There is no area where conformity to the ideology of the Uniparty is more complete than in public schools and universities. You might look up the example of Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor who resigned from Portland State University citing its transformation from “a bastion of free inquiry into a social justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division”. In the end, it’s not even a question of being conservative but rather being an advocate for open inquiry and free speech on campuses. Of course, the University of Austin was recently founded for the very purpose of escaping the oppressive atmosphere of existing universities.

There is a huge market for alternatives in any space. You have a vast proportion of the country who do not want to support “woke”[8] corporations. They are hungry for any sort of alternative that liberates them from having to buy from these businesses that not only oppose their values but actively censor and “cancel” them. Any sector could have market entrants that brand themselves as counter-cultural brands. I’ve been thinking about whether fashion is one possible area.

JYT: Since you’ve mentioned it, I’ve read up on Moldbug and the confined but influential cult-ish neoreactionary ideology .[9] I think it is important to point out that there are prominent leaders in Silicon Valley who share this worldview and vision for the future. There’s even funding that has been traced to link Peter Thiel[10] and Moldbug, for example (I’ll admit I can feel the thrill of a conspiracy here). This is the channelling of resources that leads to things like “seasteading”, a movement that promotes micro-cities in the middle of the sea as a way of being liberated from state-imposed restrictions and problems brought about by global connectivity — like pandemics. Moldbug’s theories may seem more docile, but that also means that they have the potential to garner the financial support to actualise ideology as a vision for the future, setting it apart from the plethora of more loopy conspiracy theories. But what does it take for visions like Moldbug’s to be realised? Is it only a matter of financial resources?

NF: Moldbug’s vision is appealing but he’s also something of an advocate for authoritarianism. The idea that we need some sort of Caesar figure may be appealing to some but is going to be even less in favour in the age of Vladmir Putin and Xi Jinping. But yes, anything that takes us away from this current path will require incredible financial resources to create new, free institutions. It’s an uphill battle and it seems that the vast majority of wealthy people are content to make more profit, following the same path, like frogs in water that is only now starting to get hot. Like with social media, the question is whether current institutions can be brought back to some semblance of balance or must be abandoned in favour of new ones. Without saving education, there is not much hope.

Editor's Note:

Paintings by New York-based artist Sven Loven accompany this complex dialogue that seeks to understand the contexts and underpinnings of extremist political views and where platforms sit in enabling and disenabling them. The paintings from Loven’s solo exhibition Hell is Hot and the World is Cold are grotesque figurations of catharsis, sorrow, and even ecstasy, unleashed into a violent freedom. They were selected to resonate with the polarised political climate prominent in the dialogue.

  • 1.

    Mythbusters was a science television programme that aired on Discovery Channel from 2003 to 2018 in which widely-held folk beliefs were put to the test.

  • 2.

    Blogging under the Moldbug alias, Yarvin developed the concept of “the Cathedral” in 2008 as a shorthand for the academic and journalistic mainstream that preaches the official “faith” of political correctness.

  • 3.

    The lizard people conspiracy posits that shape-shifting reptilian humanoids have invaded Earth and seek to control it.

  • 4.

    David Brooks, “How the Bobos Broke America”, The Atlantic, 2021.

  • 5.

    Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, New York University Press, 2005.

  • 6.

    Founded in 2018, Parler was touted as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, gaining popularity in the run-up to the U.S.’s 2020 election. In January 2021, following evidence that the Capitol insurrection had been organised through the platform, Amazon, through Amazon Web Services (AWS), forced Parler offline, while Apple and Google removed it from respective app stores.

  • 7.

    The Uniparty is a term given largely by the far-right to refer to a unified establishment elite encompassing both the Democrat Party and relatively moderate Republican politicians.

  • 8.

    The term “woke”, which originated in the US, originally referred to having an awareness of racial prejudice and discrimination, although the term expanded to include awareness of various social injustices. The term is now most commonly used derogatorily to refer to performative activism surrounding these issues.

  • 9.

    The term “neoreactionary” references the French Revolution, with “reactionaries” referring to people who support the return to a pre-existing state of affairs. While the ideal political state varies across neoreactionaries, they strongly refuse democracy and most commonly prefer aristocratic systems appropriated to modern day economic hierarchies.

  • 10.

    Peter Thiel is a German-American billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Thiel was the first investor in Facebook and is the co-founder of Paypal and Palantir Technologies, a company that is controversial for its role providing government agencies with surveillance systems and predictive policing technologies. Thiel is reportedly an investor in Curtis Yarvin’s startup Urbit.

Artists and Contributors

Jing Yi Teo portrait picture

Jing Yi Teo

Jing Yi Teo is a curator and writer based out of Istanbul and Singapore. She is Co-Initiator of ArtBizTech, an innovation and strategy consultancy driven by interdisciplinary art, and is also Curator of bang. Prix, its non-profit arm supporting practices that intersect art, technology and science. Her work focuses on expanding artistic practices beyond traditional scopes and finding new actors to engage with. Jing Yi is the Lead, Incubator Programme of SO-FAR where she observes, documents and augments the artistic practices and careers of the brightest minds in the SO-FAR environs.

Nels Frye

Nels Frye

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Nels Frye has lived in Taipei, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Dalian, Chengdu, Beijing, and Shanghai working as a business consultant, freelance writer and photographer, and entrepreneur. He has developed market entry strategies in industries from fashion to aviation, packaging, and literary copyright protection and he writes on subjects ranging from menswear to design. He majored in history at the University of Chicago and his interest in China was sparked by reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of China’s major historical novels, at age fourteen.