While the QAnon phenomenon may have (thankfully) dissipated in the last couple of years after playing a prominent part in the the January 6 debacle, conspiracy culture in general has shown no signs of following the same path. Indeed, if anything, the online world is even more full of beliefs in grand secretive schemes by the elite to enslave or even kill the general populace, thanks perhaps largely to the COVID pandemic.
Another important contributor to the spread of conspiracy theories in recent years though is the rise of the online ‘influencer’. From COVID denialists through to the seeming never-ending cavalcade of ‘political talking head’ grifters, social media has offered a loudspeaker to all – and it seems the dumber or more controversial the take, the more likely it is to be amplified by the algorithm and gain masses of followers.
Don’t get me wrong – a certain level of distrust in authority and mainstream media is always a good thing, and there are for sure plenty of actual conspiracies out there (though all the dubious ones that capture the public’s attention probably only help the real ones to stay hidden). But in the social media era, everything seems to be a conspiracy, and there’s a whole lot more confirmation bias than skepticism being used when people evaluate them.
And it seems when conspiracy culture becomes ubiquitous, nobody is safe from its clutches…even the (sometimes) richest man in the world. Elon Musk himself over the last few years has become increasingly drawn into conspiracy theories and some seriously stupid political rhetoric, apparently as a result of being terminally online and not having a lot of people around him who are willing to speak up and tell him when he’s being a fucking moron.
Hints at what was to come were perhaps first noticed with a Musk tweet in May 2020, where he exhorted his followers to ‘Take the red pill.’ Hardly a terrible statement on its own – for a long time ‘taking the red pill’, a major plot point in The Matrix, has meant seeing through the illusion of mainstream media and rhetoric to get a glimpse of ‘the real world’ (note the username of our very own Red Pill Junkie). However, in the post-Trump era, becoming ‘pilled’ has taken on a specific meaning – usually synonymous with far right politics, white supremacy, male chauvinism and some of the dumbest conspiracy theories out there (hello to you, Qanoners!).
There’s a lot of reasons to not use the term in that way and ‘take it back’, not least because it a was a cool metaphor from a great movie that has now been co-opted by the worst of people. And also of course because one of the co-creators of the movie dislikes people co-opting it for shitty philosophies (and probably especially when those people are amplifiers of transphobic ideas).
But the main reason for not wanting to call these people ‘red-pilled’ is because they actually haven’t woken up to see the real world at all. It’s excellent when people do take the time to question mainstream ‘truths’ – but ‘pilled’ people have usually just been taken advantage of by grifters who have used that questioning attitude (a good thing on its own) as a vulnerability, to prey on these people and suck them into an ugly alternative belief system. It’s less The Matrix and more like Inception, where ‘the mark’ thinks they’ve woken up from a dreamlike illusion into reality, when they’re really just in another layer of the dream, still being misled. And instead of mainstream ideas being central to their existence – boring perhaps, but mostly benign – the ideas are now powerfully toxic.
However, it’s easy enough to give Musk the benefit of the doubt on this one, and assume that he was just being a sci-fi nerd and encouraging people to think differently. And even after he then, in December 2022, used another Matrix (and Alice in Wonderland) motif that has been co-opted – the ‘follow the white rabbit’ slogan prominently used by QAnon followers – we might have hoped that he again did so blissfully unaware of how it looked.
Fast forward to May 2023 though, and Musk has now not only lobbied for the release of the ‘QAnon Shaman’, but has also repeatedly amplified the tweets of a former QAnon influencer – and even become a subscriber to their account (ie. he financially supports them as a follower). If Musk isn’t dabbling in QAnon conspiracies, he is at the very least now directly mixing in the same circles and swimming in the same toxic sea of ideas.
And beyond any links to QAnon, his recent boosts of the QAnon influencer are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the nonsense Musk has bought into, with seemingly every right-wing conspiracy theory du jour being worthy of his attention and boosting. From the attack on Paul Pelosi with a hammer to the recent Texas mall shooting, Musk has regularly asked whether the government and media are misleading us about certain events, covering the truth up (and weirdly, the ‘certain events’ nearly always seem to revolve around supposed false flag conspiracies to fake white nationalist attacks and demonstrations and media misinformation about white on black crime – make of that what you will…).
This is hardly surprising, when the list of Twitter accounts that Musk appears to be influenced by and boost are a cavalcade of some of the most awful right-wing ‘influencers’ on the bird site, who despite their lies and sensationalising have faced no accountability for their dangerous conspiracy nonsense.
Having one of the most high-profile people in the world buy into and spread nonsense and (sometimes dangerous) conspiracy theories is bad enough on its own – but to have that same person owning and running one of the major mass communication mediums lifts the problem to a new level. For instance, as a consequence of the new ‘blue tick’ system on Twitter introduced by Musk – in which those who pay Musk $8/month to be ‘verified’ and have their tweets boosted in visibility over those without blue ticks (among other advantages) – nearly all the replies to any topic open to conspiracy discussion (e.g. any tweet about politics) are from either Musk sycophants, right-wing influencers (you don’t generally pay for Twitter unless you are a wannabe influencer), or some combination of both. As such, when conspiracy theories are shared, either in the original tweet or in the replies, there is no visibility in skeptical replies or pushback against the claim, unless one wants to scroll forever to get past the wall of blue tick awfulness.
Funnily enough, when Musk recently announced the appointment of a new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, the hordes of blue tick conspiracy theorists quickly turned on Musk when they found out that she had previously worked with the World Economic Forum (WEF) – one of the boss demons in the modern conspiracy movement, courtesy of their ‘Great Reset‘ initiative.
This mass of blue tick replies immediately beneath any tweet – some of the worst takes, from the least trustworthy individuals – could be enough to tip the scales when someone with an open and enquiring mind reads them, being convinced by the false consensus that this new system results in. Referring back to the Linda Yaccarino situation above, a huge number of the replies to Musk’s announcement are ‘blue ticks’ crying about the WEF, globalists and the Great Reset. One would think the entire internet has now agreed that the WEF in whole are indeed satanic communists out to kill off half the population of the planet.
Following the events of January 6, 2021, there seemed to be somewhat of a reckoning, where people realised that conspiracy culture had tipped over the edge after four years of running amok, and the rhetoric needed to be dialed back. Rather than a permanent change, however, that now seems to have been more and more just a short reprieve in a steady progression down towards some even nastier endpoint that we haven’t reached yet. The current state of Twitter, and the gullible nature of its owner, does not leave me with any confidence that we will pull back from the edge again.