Conspiracists think big. In fact, thinking big is a requirement for something to be a conspiracy theory in the first place. It’s the belief in shadowy entities more powerful than oneself that turns political and cultural observations into conspiracy; it means that you are always punching up, never down, because the enemy is always more powerful than you. The internet is an agonistic medium driven by conflict and also one that creates powerful distortions of scale and in both of those respects, amplifies the conspiratorial tendency.
These were the historical and social forces, presumably, informing a comment I received on my blog last year: “Jews: your time is coming. The goyim are awakening once again.” Thanks to the internet, the commenter is able to find Jews and Jewish proxies everywhere and propose his own counter-conspiracy, that of the awakened goyim, to battle the old warhorse of Evil Globalist International Jewry. Likewise, the embattled adherents of QAnon, the overelaborate Deep State conspiracy theory based on cryptic 4chan posts from a supposed insider, are empowered by their conviction that they have joined forces with a righteous counter-conspiracy that is fighting against anti-Trump forces from inside the belly of government.
How is it that the internet is so conducive to generating conspiracies, counter-conspiracies, and similar departures from reality? It has to do with language. The social internet—fast-paced, terse, and unrevised—is an environment tailored to privileging amorphous ideas over real people and real life. A single hashtag (or Facebook group, or Reddit) can unite thousands, but they may only have the faintest idea of exactly what’s connecting them. It’s the conspiracy that unifies them. QAnon denizens are driven by different desires and fears but the conspiracy theory unites them against a common, powerful enemy. By putting the words of these theories front and center, in a raw and huge torrent, the internet makes it that much harder for reality to gain any purchase.
Online, where anonymous hordes threaten to burst into comment feeds and discussion boards at any moment, any single person will easily feel persecuted by an overwhelming mass of ideological, political, and/or ethnic opponents. Whether these opponents are actually so powerful is harder to judge, but the internet will affirm the sense of just how outnumbered you are. If going on Twitter doesn’t spook me enough as to the countless people who want me insulted, disenfranchised, or dead, I can always look warily at Gab, the Twitter clone known for its alt-right userbase. Its hundreds of thousands of mostly anonymous users will frighten me without my even having to create an account.
At the risk of conspiracy theorizing about conspiracy theorists, I will indulge in a bit of connect-the-dots here, in order to show how conspiracy theories easily connect and generalize. Recently, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker recommended a book by anti-Semitic nutcase David Icke in the pages of the New York Times. Icke’s website is itself something of a clearinghouse for conspiracies, having last year printed artist Mear One’s defense of his now infamous mural depicting what the Independent termed “several wealthy Jews playing Monopoly, with the board resting on the bowed, naked backs of workers.” In response, Mr. One wrote, “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc as the demons they are.”
On Icke’s website, Mear One wrote that he had been misunderstood and that he was merely anti-capitalist and not anti-Semitic. He points out that in the background of his mural is the Eye of Providence (aka the pyramonster), supposed icon of the Freemasons and Illuminati. The Judeo-Masonic connection is one of the founding ideas of modern anti-Semitism. It dates back to Augustin Barruel’s 1797 text Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, which proposed a Masonic conspiracy behind the French Revolution. A letter in 1806 from Albert Simonini convinced Barruel to incorporate Jews into what had previously been a Christian conspiracy.
As the case of Mear One shows, capitalism and globalism are now the acceptable faces of conspiracy. They don’t directly encompass any particular racial or ethnic divisions, but their conceptions are so vague as to make such associations inevitable. Theories of overarching, abstract bogeymen are what Hans Blumenberg termed “causal formulas of maximum generality.” With Communism out of the running, “globalism” has become the preferred formula of the conspiratorial right, used to bash immigrants, Obamacare, trade agreements, Jews, Muslims, and any other sinister other that may arise. The immediate target, whoever it may be, is invariably an agent of even more powerful globalist ringleaders, just as Napoleon was an agent of Freemasonry and the Jews. The bigot can always retort that he or she is criticizing globalism rather than a racial or ethnic group; that is the conspiracist’s Get Out of Jail Free card.
Whether the object of a conspiracy is “globalists,” “Jewish globalists,” such terms are so broad as to be incoherent. By design, they resist any definite meaning—if there’s already endless argument over what a “Jew” is, there will never be agreement on what “globalism” is. They are also uniquely suited to the internet. The local manifestations of government, capital, religion, or any other general principle may not resonate beyond a limited audience. A generalized principle, besides making an excellent hashtag, can be stretched and adapted to a variety of situations and prejudices. Blumenberg writes in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, “it is the high degree of indefiniteness of the complexes that equips them to accept a variety of specific forms.” One easily slips from “globalists” to “bankers” to “Rothschilds” to “Jews.”
The left is not immune to such vagueness. Leftist theories of “capitalism,” global or not, frequently paint capitalism as such a totalizing, ubiquitous force that nothing short of revolution or apocalypse could stop it in its tracks. The concept of “white supremacy” has taken on similarly gargantuan proportions, encompassing a spectrum from David Duke to Bernie Sanders. In her 2017 book Whites, Jews, and Us (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press), French-Algerian activist Houria Bouteldja bemoaned Sartre’s philo-Semitism: “Sartre’s good white conscience … prevents him from completing his task: to liquidate the white man. To resign himself to the oppressor’s defeat or death, even if he were Jewish. … Is Philo-Semitism not the last refuge of white humanism?” Bouteldja subsumes the individual “Jew” into a flurry of abstract concepts: “You can recognize a Jew not because he calls himself one, but because of his willingness to meld into whiteness, to support his oppressor, and to want to embody the canons of modernity.”
Reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk after Bouteldja, I was struck not just by Du Bois’ greater humanity but by his greater specificity, writing without fear that individual details would inevitably complicate the pictures of the world he drew. Wrestling with such complications is the only thing that can connect our general terms to the real world. I could package up Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Alice Walker, Mear One, and Houria Bouteldja into a unified, towering edifice of anti-Semitism, slap a hashtag on it, and drive myself and others to paranoia. But we would be ignoring reality in favor of a Frankenstein monster of our own creation.
Such monsters pervade the internet. Online discourse thrives on the generalized vagueness of instant takes and half-baked slogans, and generalized vagueness is a hallmark of conspiracy theories. It increases a conspiracy theory’s viral spread (through its generalization) and provides convenient dodges to bigots (through its vagueness). Since we see words on the internet far more than we see the people behind them, the shapes formed out of those words easily come to resemble those conspiratorial concepts, in more and less innocuous forms. Today’s anti-globalist may be tomorrow’s anti-Semite, but on the internet, it’s increasingly hard to tell the difference to begin with.
David Auerbach is the author of Bitwise: A Life in Code (Pantheon). He is a writer and software engineer who has worked for Google and Microsoft. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, MIT Technology Review, The Nation, Slate, The Daily Beast, n+1, and Bookforum, among many other publications. He has lectured around the world on technology, literature, philosophy, and stupidity. He lives in New York City.