conspiracy-minded researchers simply attempting to connect the dots
September 29, 2022 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Deep state phobia: Narrative convergence in coronavirus conspiracism on Instagram.

…(W)hile the idea of narrative convergence has long figured in conspiracy theory research, empirical evidence has been scarce. The present article aims to address this gap by means of an investigation of an archive containing over 470,000 conspiracy-related Instagram posts from 2020 … In interpreting these findings we focus on the concept of ‘the Deep State’ as a bridge between various conspiracist narratives, which seems to cut diagonally across political ideologies.
posted by signal (48 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
Isn’t it quite common for conspiracies to evolve into the story of a secret cabal of all powerful people pulling strings in the background?
posted by njohnson23 at 8:24 AM on September 29 [6 favorites]


I've generally taken that as given. So much so that I tend to assume that the conclusion comes first which gives the research a focus. Confirmation bias basically.
posted by philip-random at 8:29 AM on September 29 [3 favorites]


As a philosophical question though, doesn't the world sort of work as powerful people pulling strings in the background? Haven't 'elites' controlled society from the top of, er, the pyramid through most of history? From kings to law to politics and religion and finance, it's pretty easy to argue that backroom deals out of view of the hoi poi runs significant portions of the world?
posted by Jacen at 8:31 AM on September 29 [7 favorites]


I feel like a majority of right-wing conspiracy theories comes from co-opting left/liberal concepts and twisting it into their own fucked up definitions or moral panics ("critical race theory" comes to mind) and completely taking over the narrative from there.

Like, I remember very clearly when "deep state" was an idea discussed among liberals and leftists - there was a whole Bill Moyers episode about it on PBS! - and it was pretty much used exclusively to mean "The CIA/DoD operating secretively with impunity and without oversight from elected officials" which sounds like a pretty reasonable thing to be concerned about. I sort of hate that it's basically been taken over by fringe batshit right wingers to now mean "a secret cabal of pedophiles looking to take down Trump" or whatever the fuck, but that's what they do.
posted by windbox at 8:33 AM on September 29 [27 favorites]


For each post, we retained the hashtags and the full text of the post description. We ran the script at four points across 2020: in mid-May, at the end of June, at the end of August, and at the end of October. By concatenating these data we created a single corpus of 707,203 posts. This resulted in a historically unique archive, since Instagram is known to have removed a large numbers of accounts deemed as conspiracist in late 2020. As our analysis focuses on Q1 through Q3, this ‘deplatforming’ is not visible in our data collection. However, upon verification, we found a substantial number of the posts discussed below to have been permanently deleted—as well as a third of the accounts—in what amounts to a radical erasure of the archival record for this controversial period on the platform
This is an interesting point.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:37 AM on September 29 [10 favorites]


As a philosophical question though, doesn't the world sort of work as powerful people pulling strings in the background?

Yes, of course but there is no single set of elites even within a framework as small as a US state [or larger city], so game theory says that if one group of elites is trying to hide something advantageous to them, the other elites will expose it for their own gain.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:39 AM on September 29 [7 favorites]


When I encounter a friend espousing some degree of the content within, I ask: Which is simpler?

Dozens of billionaires working together to control specific things and make everything worse for all of us because (religion, satan-worship, money, aliens, lizards)

Dozens of billionaires all working for themselves, to make themselves richer, and that makes everything worse for all of us.

If you're persuasive and they're receptive, this can help.

Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups
George Carlin
posted by shenkerism at 8:41 AM on September 29 [30 favorites]


Look, if I've learned anything from Metafilter, it's that there is no cabal.

(Those poor, poor bastards. Having to wade neck-deep in the cesspool just to write this paper?)
posted by caution live frogs at 8:56 AM on September 29 [1 favorite]


Isn’t it quite common for conspiracies to evolve into the story of a secret cabal of all powerful people pulling strings in the background?

That's what they want you to believe.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:58 AM on September 29 [10 favorites]


As a philosophical question though, doesn't the world sort of work as powerful people pulling strings in the background? Haven't 'elites' controlled society from the top of, er, the pyramid through most of history? From kings to law to politics and religion and finance, it's pretty easy to argue that backroom deals out of view of the hoi poi runs significant portions of the world?

I think that's why conspiracy theories get traction! And conversely why critiques of capital and secretive state power get dismissed unfairly as mere conspiracies!

But the key part of conspiracy theories is usually the wrong people control the world, not "the world should be run in a fair, equal, transparent way instead of by lizards in human suits". Like, the people who think that the world is run by [lizard people, for whatever bigoted value of lizard people] would be just fine with Donald Trump running the world. What they are really saying is "people like me should be running the world, not Those People".

If you read even a little history, it's obvious that "conspiracies" among the wealthy do happen all the time, sometimes effectively and sometimes not - price fixing, union busting, funneling money to political campaigns, meeting at an English estate to try to get support for the Nazis, etc. Why wouldn't they? Very rich people know a lot of other very rich people, and they talk about rich people stuff. You talk to your friends and colleagues; well, the friends and colleagues of Jeff Bezos are also extremely wealthy people.

The ultimate difference between conspiracy theory and political organizing is the desired outcome, I think, and that depends on the person who is doing the believing. If you're the type of person who wants a radically equal and transparent society you probably are not going to look at a problem and say "aha, it's wealthy minorities!!!!" because your belief system explains concentrated and secret power differently.

People on the left do definitely drift into conspiracy thinking but that happens with a drift into open bigotry. There are people I can think of who have gone absolutely off the deep end about trans people and that's been the visible sign of their ideological shift as they move over into lizard people territory.

~~
There's probably some people who stick with the flat earth/giant trees/ice walls side of things, pure fantasists who stay that way and really just want to convince everyone that outside the ice walls there is so much more earth, but they seem pretty rare.
posted by Frowner at 8:58 AM on September 29 [35 favorites]


…game theory says that if one group of elites is trying to hide something advantageous to them, the other elites will expose it for their own gain.

If only game theory were that simple. Cartels are a thing! They’re an unstable thing, but they can and do happen.
posted by notoriety public at 9:00 AM on September 29 [4 favorites]


And conversely why critiques of capital and secretive state power get dismissed unfairly as mere conspiracies!

"There's only once conspiracy," declared a drunk friend some years ago, tired of where the conversation had gone. "MONEY!"

He doesn't even remember saying it. I'll never forget it.
posted by philip-random at 9:03 AM on September 29 [29 favorites]


My usual response to conspiracy theorizing is that the theories call for a level of competence not normally in evidence, particularly in groups. Like, have you ever actually managed a project? I suppose they fill a need for the comfort of an answer; the alternative is chaos, and who wants that?

The eventual gravitation towards a scapegoat is not in the least bit surprising.
posted by jquinby at 9:24 AM on September 29 [11 favorites]


I feel like a majority of right-wing conspiracy theories comes from co-opting left/liberal concepts and twisting it into their own fucked up definitions or moral panics .

Yep. Half the crap that right wing conspiracy-lovers are into was part of the anarchist/left ideology 15 years ago. It's amazing how it just switched sides.

Though it's not exactly the same, the right wing's version of conspiracy theory is more idiotic and absurdist ( to match the mentality of the right I guess ).
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:26 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


My usual response to conspiracy theorizing is that the theories call for a level of competence not normally in evidence, particularly in groups

Back when I collected conspiracy theories for laughs, one of my favourite cabals of shadowy overlords was named the Committee of 300. One wonders how they got anything at all done.
posted by acb at 9:31 AM on September 29 [11 favorites]


> windbox: "Like, I remember very clearly when "deep state" was an idea discussed among liberals and leftists - there was a whole Bill Moyers episode about it on PBS! - and it was pretty much used exclusively to mean "The CIA/DoD operating secretively with impunity and without oversight from elected officials" which sounds like a pretty reasonable thing to be concerned about."

While I'm aware that this specific concept (i.e.: CIA/DOD impunity) was been floating around for at least as long as, say, the Vietnam War era, are you very certain that the term "deep state" was used for it? My understanding of the term "deep state" was that it was originally applied to places like Turkey and later Egypt, places where we have very explicit examples of military and/or governmental actors usurping/deposing governments.
posted by mhum at 9:33 AM on September 29 [7 favorites]




While I'm aware that this specific concept (i.e.: CIA/DOD impunity) was been floating around for at least as long as, say, the Vietnam War era, are you very certain that the term "deep state" was used for it

Here's the Bill Moyers episode from 2014 for anyone interested
posted by windbox at 9:43 AM on September 29 [1 favorite]


Half the crap that right wing conspiracy-lovers are into was part of the anarchist/left ideology 15 years ago. It's amazing how it just switched sides.

It's less amazing when you realize that the ur-conspiracy theory is basically the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, variations upon which have always found footholds across the political spectrum. Even the lizard alien theories are shot through with pretty explicit antisemitism.
posted by BungaDunga at 9:44 AM on September 29 [20 favorites]


> windbox: "Here's the Bill Moyers episode from 2014 for anyone interested"

Wow! Very interesting, especially as it comes from 2014, pre-Trump's distortions.
posted by mhum at 9:47 AM on September 29


I'm wondering if the shape-shifting-reptilian-alien conspiracy theory was always thinly-veiled Protocols/blood-libel anti-Semitism, or if it started off separate from this but mutated by a memetic law that any conspiracy theory about sinister predatory groups eventually converges with the anti-Semitic metaconspiracy (perhaps akin to the way that urban legends about obscure brands/celebrities mutate into ones about better-known ones).
posted by acb at 9:50 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


If we are going to have any conspiracy theories at all, I'd like to go back to UFOs/Bigfoot/Area 51/lake monsters. Let's make cryptids the focus of conspiracy again!
posted by Kitteh at 9:56 AM on September 29 [7 favorites]


It's less amazing when you realize that the ur-conspiracy theory is basically the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,

roughly thirty years ago, I happened to be having dinner with Jello Biafra (it's a long story) when a guy I barely knew invited himself to the table and presented Mr. Biafra with a photocopy document entitled The Gemstone File. We talked for a bit, the guy (call him Mike) proving to be not obviously paranoid or otherwise deranged, just firmly of the belief that somebody as important as Jello Biafra should know about the Gemstone File. As I recall, Mike ordered a few items from the menu that he felt we had to try, then excused himself, disappeared. Later we discovered he'd paid for our meal.

As for the file itself, I guess I perused it a bit as did Jello. He frowned at some point and said, "More antisemitic bullshit."
posted by philip-random at 10:01 AM on September 29 [17 favorites]


"More antisemitic bullshit."

which, now that I've taken a moment to look at that wikipedia link, doesn't actually seem to figure.

The Gemstone File proposes that Aristotle Onassis, Joseph P. Kennedy, and other prominent figures were involved in various schemes to forward a vast global conspiracy, involving the Mafia and corrupt politicians, brutal oil and drug cartels, rogue military operations, and more.

more of a Roman Catholic thing.
posted by philip-random at 10:06 AM on September 29 [1 favorite]


I feel like a majority of right-wing conspiracy theories comes from co-opting left/liberal concepts and twisting it into their own fucked up definitions or moral panics ("critical race theory" comes to mind) and completely taking over the narrative from there.

Just like "fake news".
posted by steveminutillo at 10:08 AM on September 29 [10 favorites]


Besides "The wrong people control the world!", I think an important element of the conspiracy theories that really get traction is that not only are the wrong people in charge, but that this is why we - the right people - are not succeeding as we 'should' be. You're not succeeding but there's a REASON for it. It's easier to accept strangely all-powerful yet also nearly evidence-free conspiracies than to consider that maybe you just suck or your own people are fucking you over and that's why you're not successful.

A close second is the idea that not only are the wrong people in charge, but that some of the wrong people are getting power or money or things that should be going to me and my (the right) people. The persistent belief among a lot of white folks that there is some secret slush fund of government money and resources that flows like water for people of color and immigrants so they can live lavishly but that is somehow inaccessible to white folks.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:37 AM on September 29 [13 favorites]


Like, I remember very clearly when "deep state" was an idea discussed among liberals and leftists -
Yes, and more recently, at the beginning of the Trump presidency, lots of blue check types were talking about how the deep state -- meaning ordinary civil servants throughout the government -- would hinder the president's most damaging agenda items. Right wingers immediately seized on that notion. It was true, to some extent.

The same thing happened with the idea of "fake news". During the 2016 campaign there were outright fake news sites posting completely fabricated stories made to look like legitimate newspapers. The media called that phenomenon "fake news" and the right wingers reversed it and used it to describe mainstream news that was critical. People who were there when all of this happened seem to have forgotten that these words used to describe other phenomena and just swallow the right wing definitions!
posted by chrchr at 10:42 AM on September 29 [10 favorites]


Quite a lot of the QAnon/Pizzagate bullshit nonsense--not just the specific content and targets, but the loosey-goosey style--seems cribbed from The Illuminatus! Trilogy. And Tatsuya Ishida of Sinfest fame/infamy (recently on the blue) has recently gotten into the "1/6 (and maybe all right-wing public violence episodes) are false-flag operations by government deep-state operatives" thing in his strip; infiltration of progressive/radical left-wing organizations by state agents, some of whom have occasionally acted as provocateurs, has long been suspected if not proven on the left, but Ishida seems to be saying that they're all government operatives.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:50 AM on September 29 [5 favorites]


You can't just dismiss conspiracy obsession with mere anti- semitism. Regardless of whether that plays a part in some of the organs, it's way beyond that now.

FWIW I think when David Icke talks about Lizard People he means actual Lizard People. Not some metaphor but people who are Lizards. It's got to do with alien lore/new age mythology as far I can surmise.
posted by Liquidwolf at 10:54 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


A deep state does exist. It was mocked in the BBC series Yes Minister.
The Minister is a politician appointed by the PM of the day. The deputy minister is a career civil servant. Politicians will come and go but the Ministry and civil service endures. and has it's own interests.

It's nature is inherently conservative, i.e. it is resistant to change. There is bureaucratic inertia.

Both right and left wingers get frustrated at the pace or lack of pace by the entrenched bureaucracies.
In a way the deep state acts as a brake. That can be a good thing.
It is also one reason Trump has promised to replace thousands of senior bureaucrats with party loyalists.

I would also say that the federal civil service is one component of a deep state.
You could include the various other institutions that make up society.
posted by yyz at 11:02 AM on September 29 [4 favorites]


Look, if I've learned anything from Metafilter, it's that there is no cabal.


Now that we put that out there, the Metafilter cabal can safely operate with impunity.
Hahahahaha. Just kidding.

Sincerely,

One of Several Thousand Highly Intelligent humanoids communicating anonymously daily, filtering out informational noise and adding coherence to the infospherical zeitgeist towards a goal known only through mystical allusions to "Blue".
posted by storybored at 11:08 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


It just means the structures of the state which are not explicit.

Honestly, if there wasn't a deep state, it wouldn't even achieve this level of dysfunctionality, like, anywhere. The deep state is the civil servants who have known each other for 3 governments. Think of it as the way anything continues to work when you re-organize it based on what the visible structure looks like. Inevitably you destroy all the non-visible non-formal mechanisms for cooperation and progress. What you've unintentionally done is sabotage the deep state, i.e., the part of the state that forms its fabric beyond its superficial structures.

Of COURSE people abuse their private knowledge of those things. But that's just people, not some group of superhumans that has somehow managed to achieve a silent accord and enforce it invisibly everywhere. If people tend toward the preserving and restoring the status quo, it's because they're people. Self-reflective people might be a bit better, but we can't have everything. Or indeed, anything really.
posted by j0ni at 11:20 AM on September 29


I remember very clearly when "deep state" was an idea discussed among liberals and leftists - there was a whole Bill Moyers episode about it on PBS! - and it was pretty much used exclusively to mean "The CIA/DoD operating secretively with impunity and without oversight from elected officials" which sounds like a pretty reasonable thing to be concerned about.

The CIA certainly did a lot of things it denied at the time. But in the left, there was still a split between things there was evidence for (secret support for overthrowing governments) and wackier stuff (secret bases teaching mind control techniques). QAnon seems different from both. It's on the no factual support side, but rather that born of paranoia, seems almost designed to create a mindset allowing manipulation.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:35 AM on September 29


I feel like a majority of right-wing conspiracy theories comes from co-opting left/liberal concepts and twisting it into their own fucked up definitions or moral panics ("critical race theory" comes to mind) and completely taking over the narrative from there.

You know the old line about the socialism of fools. I think left/liberal people flatter themselves too much saying it’s all an appropriation but conspiracy thinking tends to be the lazy thinker’s political radicalism.

(And it seems to be a recurring dumb idea on the left to try to embrace the popularity of conspiracy shit as a potential gateway to political radicalism, which is invariably a dead end because too many people really do just love the simplistic half-baked version.)
posted by atoxyl at 11:51 AM on September 29 [4 favorites]


How to Talk to a Conspiracy Theorist has some practical and actionable advice.

"When comparing conspiracy theories to their real-world counterparts, what becomes clear is how conspiracists tend to see the world on a fairly abstract level. There is a purposeful lack of detail and specificity since such detail will reveal inherent problems and contradictions with the theory. The more you press for these details, the harder the conspiratorial mind will have to work to reconcile the theory with reality. My goal is always to move the conspiracy theory out of the realm of abstraction and into the concrete: What are the mechanics of this conspiracy, and what is preventing the normal mechanisms of investigative journalism and law enforcement from kicking in here?"
posted by storybored at 1:10 PM on September 29 [13 favorites]


cribbed from The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

Which itself was a 60s-counterculture-era satire of right-wing paranoia in the John Birch Society mould that was around in the US during the McCarthy era and beyond. Robert Anton Wilson famously got the idea when, whilst editing the letters page at Playboy, he received a letter from someone asking about whether the Bavarian Illuminati were behind everything, and followed it down the rabbit hole.
posted by acb at 2:01 PM on September 29 [10 favorites]


You can't just dismiss conspiracy obsession with mere anti-semitism. Regardless of whether that plays a part in some of the organs, it's way beyond that now.

I used to be incredulous that anyone still believed in these hokey anti-Semitic ideas, growing up as a city Jew in several major metro areas. But then I was at happy hour with a Latina coworker from Corpus Christi, TX who, while discussing how unfortunate it was that rich and powerful people control so much of our lives, casually threw out, "yeah, like the Jews." I think these ideas are entrenched and taken as a given in less religiously diverse areas of the U.S. (and, let's be frank, the world). Wealthy Jews existing in public confirms these biases, and most people never meet the rank and file working class among us because we're a small minority in absolute numbers.

Another "I cannot fucking believe that is a thing" that shocked me as an adult. I read a blog by a black activist who subjected himself to some right wing flat Earther conspiracy convention in an anthropological way, and explained that they believe Jews are the financial backers for black civil rights movements, that it's all a shady conspiracy to destroy white Christians. People really believe this shit and they believe it in their bones. It's the foundation of every one of these wacko spinoffs.
posted by petiteviolette at 2:17 PM on September 29 [10 favorites]


he received a letter from someone asking about whether the Bavarian Illuminati were behind everything, and followed it down the rabbit hole.

but always with tongue at least slightly in cheek ...
posted by philip-random at 3:01 PM on September 29 [2 favorites]


FWIW I think when David Icke talks about Lizard People he means actual Lizard People. Not some metaphor but people who are Lizards. It's got to do with alien lore/new age mythology as far I can surmise.

Last I heard, Icke quotes and endorses the Protocols but claims that it's actually not really about Jews but actually about reptilians- he believes it's broadly correct otherwise.
posted by BungaDunga at 3:12 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


"Wealthy Jews existing in public confirms these biases, and most people never meet the rank and file working class among us because we're a small minority in absolute numbers"

It always baffles.

"The newspaper published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was discredited by The Times of London as a forgery during the Independent's publishing run. The American Jewish Historical Society described the ideas presented in the magazine as "anti-immigrant, anti-labor, anti-liquor, and antisemitic". In February 1921, the New York World published an interview with Ford in which he said:

"The only statement I care to make about the Protocols is that they fit in with what is going on."
posted by clavdivs at 6:39 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


the world should be run in a fair, equal, transparent way instead of by lizards in human suits

Such a pity that so many countries use first-past-the-post electoral systems that force so many people to vote for a lizard solely to stop the wrong lizard getting in.
posted by flabdablet at 4:53 AM on September 30 [7 favorites]


We've myriad conspiracies in modern society, many of which prove socially harmful, but they are boring by action movie standards: no aliens, many bureaucrats, minimal collaboration across agencies, much less countries, budgetary games, etc.

I suppose non-boring conspiracy theories indicate the presence actual boring conspiracies, but maybe opposite ones. We encouraged UFO conspiracies because doing so simplified doing secret aircraft. Also, CIA's Role in the Study of UFOs, 1947-90 by Gerald K. Haines.

We've plenty of harmful boring conspiracies, like NSA mass surveillance, NSA sabotaging internet standards, war crimes by US soldiers and contractors, the US military blowing up journalists, the FBI assassinations of black activists, etc etc etc.

Yet if you want real mythology by real people involved in secret work, then you should check out Seeing The Secret State: Six Landscapes by Trevor Paglen.

Also maybe Foil by Wierd Al Yankovic. ;)
posted by jeffburdges at 7:06 AM on September 30 [2 favorites]


I thought the Illuminatus! books were great, & they inoculated me against a range of conspiratorial nonsense, for which I'm grateful. It's a balancing act to remain open-minded about new things, because you have to match your love of novelty against the likelihood of believing something that might turn out to be a conspiracy theory. Also they contained some useful advice, like "Never sleep with anyone who doesn't share your values".

Isn't the whole lizard people thing a metaphor for the idea that psychopaths of various kinds tend to perform better in our institutions?
posted by sneebler at 9:51 AM on October 1 [2 favorites]


The people making noises about lizard people are generally _not_ attacking fascists, big oil, dominionists, and psychopaths in government.

So no.
posted by sebastienbailard at 6:49 PM on October 1 [2 favorites]


Isn't the whole lizard people thing a metaphor

It's screamingly obviously a metaphor.

Unfortunately its strongest signal boosters have turned out to be the same kind of headdeskingly unimaginative fools who refuse to concede that the Bible is largely a library of ancient and frequently very beautiful poetry and/or insist that Illuminatus! is non-fiction.
posted by flabdablet at 12:55 PM on October 3


Even the Church of the Subgenius managed to generate a large cohort of completely non-ironic practitioners.

Some people are just never going to get that the "critical" in "critical thinking" connotes at least as much about the vital necessity of thinking as about the nature of a particular style of thinking that they experience as snide carping attacks directed personally against their egos.

Flat Earthers need to flatten the Earth.
posted by flabdablet at 1:04 PM on October 3 [1 favorite]


I thought the Illuminatus! books were great, & they inoculated me against a range of conspiratorial nonsense

As someone else commented a while ago, “Illuminatus! was my dead-virus inoculation against Qanon”.

Even the Church of the Subgenius managed to generate a large cohort of completely non-ironic practitioners.

There's a SubGenius Mastodon instance (in that you need to be a paid-up member to get an account). Most of the content there is not terrible, but you do see the occasional MAGA/Let's Go Brandon/Fuck Your Feelings post, and/or people reposting TERFs and such. The CotSG appears to be somewhat susceptible to infestation by right-wing trolls and the like.
posted by acb at 2:14 PM on October 3


I'm sadly unsurprised. There's a strong undercurrent of 'internet edgelord dude' style for many folks in CotSG, the sort that leads to 'ironic trolling for the lulz' that isn't actually ironic or funny.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:28 PM on October 3 [2 favorites]


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