Issue #03 (2019)
Arjun Ram Srivatsa

☞ On a warm summer evening, I walked upstairs at Cafe 28, a two-story deli in Midtown Manhattan that smelled strongly of lemon-scented floor cleaner. The walls were decorated with unappetizing, outdated photos of food. At two tables, young men played Spanish rap songs from cell phones. A priest sat alone in the corner, smiling as he ate his lunch.

On a event page, the organizer had written that there would be a paper sign that read “UTM,” but it was nowhere to be found. I sheepishly approached a middle-aged woman sitting alone at a long table and asked her if she was there for the United Truthers Movement. She was.

Her name was Angeli. She was short with black hair and had a shy, quiet voice. When I told her that I was a writer who was interested in conspiracies, she fell silent. I said that I was not there to judge, just to listen.

The table began to fill up: there was DG, a red-haired woman wearing a navy fanny pack and a tourist t-shirt from Curaçao that read “I’m Dushi And I Know It” (dushi is a Caribbean creole word for sexy); Stephanie, a young woman in rectangular glasses, her blonde hair tucked tightly into a bun; Ross, whose greying ponytail draped over a black sleeveless shirt that featured the Twin Towers upside-down on the back.

Before I could introduce myself to DG, Angeli told her that I was a journalist. DG lept from her chair and handed me a stapled stack of double-sided printouts. “Look through this. This has all the information you need,” she said. “You can have it!” She launched into a long-winded explanation clarifying its contents: notes on how a plan to install a 5G network in New York City was a part of a governmental surveillance scheme. Her voice strained from passion.

Stephanie told me that she had started coming to the group in April, after meeting some members at a signature-gathering event for a petition to reopen the 9/11 investigation.

“What I like about this group is that you can really go down the rabbit hole without judgement,” she told me. “It ends up being a group therapy session where we can talk about things.”

As I introduced myself to a man with a wooden cane named Bradley, I saw Stephanie lean over to whisper something to her neighbor, Scott. His gaunt face was peppered with grey stubble. She pointed to me and he nodded. He got up, crouched beside my chair, and asked, “What do you know about Building 7?”

According to the United Truther Movement’s Meetup page, the group is “for the ‘awakened’ ones in the throngs and crowds of ‘sleepers’ we pass everyday.” In the course of the meeting, I began to understand that the Truthers see themselves as evangelists. But unlike religious proselytizers, Truthers are not tied to one set of beliefs; rather, they are driven by the need to question everything, even if the result is a contradiction or, in cases like the anti-vaccination movement, causes harm to others.

Although the Truther worldview predates the internet, social media algorithms are helping to give it new form and broaden its dissemination. For example, in the days following the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a conspiracy video jumped to the top of YouTube’s trending section. It claimed that David Hogg, a Parkland survivor who has become a vocal anti-gun activist, was a “crisis actor,” someone hired to portray a witness of what conspiracists call “false flag events,” staged disasters performed to mislead the public. The video found its way to the top because the platform’s algorithm misclassified its origin as an authoritative news source. Driven by click-through rates, the story that Hogg was a paid actor also appeared on Facebook’s trending section.

In his book New Dark Age, artist and writer James Bridle describes how the internet’s vast network of information has amplified conspiracist thinking.

Paranoia in an age of network excess produces a feedback loop. The failure to comprehend a complex world leads to the demand for more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding.

The amount of false information that can be accessed today and the swiftness with which fallacies can spread has made it easier to turn a suspicion into a full fledged conspiracy. As humanity faces global problems without immediate answers—for example, climate change—conspiracy theories like chemtrails and flat Earth are attempts to find answers through elaborate fantasies. Bridle writes:

Conspiracies literalize the horror we feel lurking unspoken in the world. Many theories…are produced by those with a deep, even hidden, awareness of current conditions and no way to articulate them in scientifically acceptable terms.

These narratives reverberate on social media. When users join conspiracy groups on Facebook, or follow conspiracists on Twitter, the platforms suggest similar communities. In a 2018 Medium post, a former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot details how the video sharing website’s suggestive algorithm has amplified conspiracy theories. Suggestive algorithms—like the one Chaslot helped build during his tenure at YouTube—function differently than normal search models. Search is optimized for relevance, using metrics such as keywords, dates, and likes, whereas suggestive algorithms employ machine learning to predict what kinds of content users want. In 2012, in order to combat the rise of clickbait thumbnails, YouTube announced that their AI would begin focusing on watch time rather than clicks.

Chaslot built a tool to extract the most frequently recommended videos for a given topic and compared them with the top 20 search results. When Chaslot searched “Is the Earth flat or round”—a common conspiracy among Truthers— 65% of videos from the organic search results debunked the theory, whereas 90% of recommendations were pro-flat Earth. Chaslot explains that this is due to the recommendation algorithm’s preference for watch time over quantitative metrics such as likes and dislikes. “Many videos claiming Michelle Obama was ‘born a man’ have more dislikes than likes,” he writes, “but are still highly recommended by YouTube.”

Since the 2012 change, the website’s AI has learned to incentivize attention-grabbing, entertaining, and long-winded content, much of it bullshit. This encouraged users to upload additional videos that corroborating the conspiracies, which pushed the algorithm further down the rabbit hole. In a post to their official blog in February 2019, YouTube announced that they were going to confront this problem by “reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”

Chaslot heralded this announcement, tweeting: “YouTube's announcement is a great victory which will save thousands. It's only the beginning of a more humane technology.”

However, YouTube made a point to note that this change, which relies on both machine learning and real moderators, will only affect their recommendation algorithm, “not whether a video is available on YouTube.” In other words, the platform acknowledges its role in the spread of harmful conspiracies, yet it still wants to make sure that users are able to upload misinformation, albeit these videos will be harder to find.

Online Trutherism flourishes in anonymity. Users have the luxury of disseminating reactionary posts without facing consequences, as evidenced by Russian-operated troll farms or 4chan forums that blame mass shootings on Muslims, Jews, and leftists. Yet like-minded conspiracists continue to spread their gospel in plain sight, at cafes and diners around the city. I wanted to understand how these people interact IRL, without the anonymity of the internet or the effects of algorithms.

Two weeks before the UTM meetup, I visited a gathering of the New York UFO Disclosure Network, a group that has been meeting biweekly for 14 years. After a conversation about alien abductions, the leader asked a room full of geriatric attendees whether they hear a strange ringing when they go from one room to another. Members enthusiastically nodded. The leader explained that the sound was coming from reptilians trying to emit bad energy into our brains. It seemed that the attendees were unwilling to accept the simplest explanation: the ringing in their ears could be a side effect of their advancing age. Rather than the targets of a vast alien plot, they were subject to the inevitable, mundane, human experience of growing old.

At Truther meetings, archetypes tend to appear. There’s the sage, a veteran who has dedicated their lives to waking the nonbelievers; the jester, who brings levity through snark. There are divas who dominate the conversation and young guns who ruffle feathers by questioning older conspiracies and pushing for new ideas. There are newbies who never speak and never return.

The United Truthers Movement group has held 20 meetups since March 2016. Of 64 members, only around 10 regularly show up. (Stephanie told me that the group has a secret chat room where members share links to new theories. I asked if I could join, but she said I’d have to first gain their trust.) The page lists some of the big conspiracies that they hold to be true: Pearl Harbor wasn’t a surprise attack, Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone in the JFK assassination, the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School was not the work of one disturbed gunman, and 9/11 was orchestrated by the Bush administration. The group is organized by a Meetup user from Hoboken, New Jersey named Morrissey. I messaged them to request an interview and they referred me to the rules on the page description, which state that there can be no UFO talk, that the group does not support any particular political party, and that “We do NOT do any interviews. NONE. Doesn't matter which newspaper or news organization you work for. Paid or Unpaid. NO INTERVIEWS. NONE. EVER.”

Yet Morrissey said that I was welcome to come and listen. “Our group is about people with the same interest hav[ing] a place to meet together and discuss topics,” he wrote. “Hope to see you at the meeting.” When I asked about Morrisey at Cafe 28, DG said he wasn’t coming.

At the beginning of the UTM meeting, each attendee shared the moment when they became a Truther—or, as many of them preferred, when they “woke up.” Bradley said he was a misfit youth who noticed early on that things move in currents. For example, he found it odd that Hillary Clinton was involved in two presidential impeachments, as an advisor of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate scandal and as the former first lady of Bill Clinton during an investigation into an extramarital affair. A young man named Robert said that he started questioning things after reading activist historian Howard Zinn in high school. His blue T-shirt read: “I’m Not Anti Social, I’m Anti Stupid.”

When Scott began to introduce himself, a man named Angel interrupted him. “I first saw Scott on the subway, and he was wearing this shirt that just said ‘9/11’ and a question mark,” he said with a sense of reverence. Angel had approached Scott and invited him to join the UTM.

“In the end of 2005, I took the red pill after reading about Building 7,” Scott said, referring to the popular conspiracy theory that the fall of one of the buildings in the 9/11 attack was a controlled demolition. Members let out affirming hums, like amens from a church congregation.

“In the beginning, you start to lose friends,” Stephanie said. More hums from around the table. “Or you disagree with them, because they aren’t talking about anything cool.”

DG laughed. “What do they think is cool?”

“I guess people think babies are cool,” Stephanie replied.

“It gets hard with partners,” Robert added. “When I try to explain something, she’s looking at me like…” He pantomimed a look of confusion, suspicion, and exhaustion. “But my experiences have led me here,” he said. “They think they can steer you, and vice versa.”

Scott gripped an empty bottle of coconut water with both hands. “The only way to spread it,” he said, speaking slowly while shaking the bottle with each word, “We got to spread it together. Plant a seed. If you get a blank face, go on to someone else.”

“But sometimes the soil isn’t there,” Robert said. Everyone laughed except for Scott; he’d missed the joke. Ross leaned over and repeated, “No soil!” Scott smiled.

It’s important to reiterate that conspiracy theories allow for a troubling detachment in their constituents. I am not against alternative explanations for existence, and am open to the idea that much of our society is controlled by a wealthy minority. Yet I recoiled as I heard theories at the expense of the dead: that the mass shootings in Sandy Hook and Las Vegas were false flag events, and the Holocaust was staged. I was unnerved by their factual inaccuracies and disgusted by their callousness.

It began with shoes. DG spoke about photographs of shoes published after the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, when 64-year-old Stephen Paddock fired over 1,100 rounds from his hotel room, killing 58 people and injuring 851. She said that these images were staged by the media to compensate for the fact that there weren’t any photos of dead bodies. Angel interjected to say that photographs of shoes were used similarly after the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, wherein counterprotestor Heather Heyer was killed when white nationalist James A. Fields Jr. rammed his car. He said there was a picture of shoes flung up in the air above a car, and the media used the image to report the attack.

Bradley said that during the Holocaust, newspapers used photos of hats on the ground. “They want you to think, ‘All these hats, where are the heads?’” he said. Angel mentioned that this theory had been explored by Ole Dammegård, a conspiracist writer who has lectured on the media’s use of disembodied clothing to cover up false flag events. Bradley asked for the spelling of Dammegård.

This reminded DG of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children, six school employees, his mother, and himself. She listed her suspicions. “It was right before Christmas, but only one window in the school had decorations,” she said. “I never saw any blood, no helicopters, just pictures of the parents.” She said that the police did not allow parents to see the bodies of their children; others seconded her claim.

As I sat in the dining area at Cafe 28, I noticed how quickly the possibility for radical openness—the Truthers’ suspension of disbelief—enabled a piece of speculation to establish itself as fact. It was like a red string was being passed around the table as the Truthers connected events on an imaginary cork board. I was reminded of the algorithms that Bridle and Chaslot criticized, sowing confusion through constant noise.

Talk of schools led DG to posit theories on the early sexualization of children. “It’s sick,” she said. “They’re teaching sex ed to 8-year-olds.” She believed this was part of an attempt to normalize pedophilia. “They want us to say ‘MAP’ now,” referring to the term Minor Attracted Person, an umbrella term for people who are sexually attracted to children. She didn’t clarify who “they” were.

“Have you heard of the ITNJ?” asked Ross. Most of the attendees hadn’t, with the exception of DG. Brows furrowed as she explained that the International Tribunal for Natural Justice, a UK-based coalition of conspiracy theorists founded in 2015, is investigating a worldwide child trafficking operation that involves elite English officials. “They take kids to the highest level,” she said. “They sacrifice kids, take babies, drug them, and force other kids to blood-let them.” She explained that 25 percent of England’s boarding schools are a part of a ring to sacrifice children.

The table fell silent. A new seed had been planted. But in order for it to grow, the attendees needed more information. For the first time, someone asked the question that had been on my mind the entire meeting:

“Who are they?” Bradley asked. “There’s so much wafting through my hair and I’m not keeping up.”

“Governments, judges, lawyers, priests,” DG responded.

Ross dug deeper. “The Mormon Church, MKUltra, the CIA,” he said. “For years, these groups have cultivated child stars.”

“The Osmonds, the Olson twins,” DG said. She kept listing child stars, then blurted out: “Pizzagate!”

The table erupted into conversation. Bradley’s eyes widened as he began to grin; something had clicked. “I got it!” He quickly turned to me and explained that the powerful people have developed a new way to control the world. “It’s like if us two controlled all the tables,” he said, pointing to the other members. “We could control their entire population.” The seed was still germinating in his mind as he tried to plant it in mine. He was giddy with discovery.

It was dark outside when the group decided to disband and head to a bar. As we gathered our things, I asked Ross what he takes away from the meetings. “You never know who you’re talking to online,” he said. “This gives you the whole package. You’re not being influenced by any kind of algorithms.” He told me that he worries about the consequences if the internet went down permanently. The fear and chaos could stoke society into war. Thus, these in-person meetups are as pragmatic as they are enjoyable. “Getting used to being able to meet in groups again, the old way, is something that shouldn’t be lost."

Scott was similarly wary of disembodied communication. “We’re not listening to each other; we’re competing,” he said. “People know there’s something wrong in the world, and they just need something to hold onto.”

We walked outside and headed north on Fifth Avenue. I thought about Scott’s claim that people are naturally suspicious and seek alternative explanations. I could understand the satisfaction behind investigating the unknown. But rather than a basis in the pursuit of truth, the Truthers’ affinities seemed all too tied to the energy they gained when collaboratively building theories. Despite all the interrogation of the government and the media, there was rarely a moment of self-reflexivity. It was a willingness that was both endearing and horrifying. I felt happy that these people at least had each other, but deeply worried that they only had each other. Conspiracy theorists aren’t isolated, tin-hatted bunker-dwellers; they are connection seekers, striving to legitimize their beliefs by bonding within a community.

We shuffled into a dive bar called John Doe, but it was dark, loud, and packed. We turned around and walked back onto the street. “It’s too loud,” Scott said. “We won’t be able to hear each other.”

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