Bad Metaphors Conspiracy Wall

The memeable trope distracts us from the way conspiracy theories actually spread

Full-text audio version of this essay.

BAD METAPHORS is an ongoing series that takes a critical look at the figures of speech or tropes that shuttle between technology and everyday life. Read the rest here.

If you spent any time in the 1990s on Haight Street in San Francisco, Telegraph Ave in Berkeley, or Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, it was only a matter of time before you encountered a two-toned mid-70’s Chevy van parked on the street, its sides emblazoned with the words STEPHEN KING SHOT JOHN LENNON. Below this: EVIDENCE PROVES OR YOU WIN THE VAN. The windows were covered with a series of newspaper clippings, photographs, and typed out notes, accusations, and lists of evidence in Courier font. The van belonged to Steve Lightfoot, a longtime conspiracy theorist, and the windows of Lightfoot’s van (he now maintains a website) were my first introduction to what has since become a standard cinematic trope to describe conspiracy theorists: the “Conspiracy Wall.”

The Conspiracy Wall is a visual representation of a byzantine labyrinth of connections that tie seemingly unrelated actors and incidents into a Grand Unified Theory. Over the last 20 years, its popularity as a reference point in police procedurals and conspiracy thrillers has vaulted it into the realm of cliché and parody. Today, its most iconic form is a screenshot from the sitcom Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, showing Charlie in front of a massive diagram revealing “a major company conspiracy theory” to do with some trivial matter of office life. The image has become a go-to reaction shot for conspiratorial musing on social media, and the image’s legibility goes to show how synonymous the “wall” has become.

Cinematically, Conspiracy Walls began to appear in the early 21st century, most notably in Memento and A Beautiful Mind, where walls covered in webs of interconnected news clippings, photographs, and other ephemera reflected complex conspiracies both real and imagined. With the first season of The Wire, they became a mainstay of police procedurals, where actual, legitimate conspiracies drive the plot. Here, they indicate good detective work as well as a dogged, even fanatical search for the truth, illustrating the detectives’ obsession as much as the actual criminal network. “All the pieces matter,” Detective Freamon tells his partner Prez as they slowly build up a wall of index cards, each bearing a person of interest. From there, Conspiracy Walls spread to other procedurals, including Homeland and True Detective, becoming an established TV cliché by the end of the decade. Since 2011, Phil Gyford has run a tumblr devoting to cataloging the various examples, from Fargo to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to a hotels dot com ad.

Conspiracy Walls are visually seductive because they suggest order and causality. In television and film, they work great as a visual for an interior state, translating the workings of someone’s mind into a graphic topography. As designer Rob Breen, who’s concocted a number of these walls for various shows, told Richard Benson in a piece for Esquire on cinematic Conspiracy Walls, “You have to remember, we’ve grown up in a culture where people use mind maps, spider diagrams, flow charts and other visualisations of information all the time in education and at work.”

The Conspiracy Wall suggests an order beneath the chaos. But such a model is almost never a useful conduit to spread ideas

Increasingly, the wall is the image associated with unhinged and outlandish conspiracy theories in real life. The screenshot of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie — gesturing frantically with a cigarette, his eyes wild and his teeth bared — is viral for a reason. The more red yarn is deployed to connect disparate actors, the more we’re primed to assume that what’s being unraveled is less the actual truth, and instead the frantic workings of a paranoid mind. Conspiracy theories go hand in hand with apophenia — seeing patterns where none exist — and the Conspiracy Wall is made for detecting signal among the noise, even if that signal is illusory.

Despite its visual and aesthetic allure, however, this trope may be distracting us from the way conspiracy theories actually spread. The Conspiracy Wall exists to build connections between disparate and seemingly random events and individuals. It suggests an order beneath the chaos, binding the world into an ever tighter network that provides a certain comfort for the theorist. But while the Conspiracy Wall may often mirror an individual’s own theory, such a model is almost never a useful conduit to spread ideas. As Steve Lightfoot’s example suggests, a highly articulated, tightly woven web is likely to be so idiosyncratic that it finds little traction beyond its initial author (despite the fact that Lightfoot has been crusading against Stephen King for something like three decades, I’ve never once seen his argument picked up by anyone else). The more specific the details, the more vulnerable they are to skepticism, and the more outlandish they threaten to become; the further you move into one person’s specific paranoia, the harder it is to follow.

Instead, conspiracy theories are most effectively spread by a scattershot approach of supposition, question-begging, goalpost-moving, and other ad hoc guerilla tactics against the accepted mainstream narrative. Following any conspiracy theorist — be it Alex Jones or Alex Berenson — one comes up time and time again with not a tightly bound articulated system but incoherency and contradiction. Studies are seized upon as bombshells only to be discarded in days. Important dates of impending events are announced and then revised or forgotten entirely once those dates pass by. Individuals are named as malevolent actors and then re-cast as heroes and protectors the next day. The more contingent or pronounced any one supposition, the more likely the “theory” is to collapse.

A particularly successful conspiracy theory that has relied less on networked connections and more on incoherency is the belief that Anthony Fauci is either corrupt, incompetent, or outright malevolent (it doesn’t really matter which one it is). The #FireFauci movement has helped drive a diminishment in the reputation of the NIAID director, with 60 percent of Republicans (along with 41 percent of Independents and 20 percent of Democrats) reporting in May of 2021 that they’d lost confidence in him over the past year. The actual allegations remain deliberately elusive and malleable.

People who subscribe to theories peddled by Alex Jones are not looking for a causal explanations, but rather for permission to feel how they want to feel

The anti-Fauci conspiracies first gained widespread traction with Mikki Willis’s 2020 film Plandemic, in which debunked scientist Judy Mikovits claimed without evidence or much coherency that Fauci was directing some major, unspecified cover-up. “And in fact,” she tells Willis, “everybody else was paid off, and paid off big time, millions of dollars in funding from Tony Fauci and Tony Fauci’s organization, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. These investigators that committed the fraud, continue to this day to be paid big time by the NIAID.” It’s not clear to what she’s referring to here; she doesn’t elaborate in the film, and there had never been any other previous allegation of fraud by Fauci or the NIAID. But at a time when Fauci was emerging in much of the country as a lone voice of sane and useful medical advice, the fringe of America realized they could target him through random, unsubstantiated and diffuse allegations.

Again, no Conspiracy Wall was required — no web of corruption needed to be articulated. A scattershot barrage of insinuation worked far better. Emails released through a lawful Freedom of Information Act were re-cast as a “leak” and branded #Faucigate. The “Fire Fauci Act” introduced to Congress by far-right conspiracists including Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene accuses Fauci of inconsistencies such as changing his stance on wearing masks during the initial outbreak, despite the fact that Donald Trump (with whom Gaetz and Greene insist they are in lockstep) amplified the same contradictory and confusing messages. The point is to never offer a clear — and thus, refutable — set of accusations against Fauci; instead, innuendo, suspicion, and disparagement open up a realm of distrust. From there, the believer fills in the details themselves.

QAnon, a phenomenon of loosely related fears and conspiracies lumped under one heading, has spread far and wide precisely because it is not simply one theory; it is a constellation of different conspiracies, offering different levels of buy-in. It is successful because it’s ecumenical. QAnon and the Fire Fauci movement spread not because they are fully articulated and worked out, but because they’re the opposite: vague, contradictory, subject to constant revision. Increasingly, conspiracists are foregrounding incoherency as a feature, not a bug. A Q drop from November 9, 2017 warned that “Disinformation is real. Disinformation is necessary,” indicating to adherents that even their most trusted source would regularly be adding noise in with the signal, and that a devotee needed to “Learn to distinguish between relevant/non-relevant news.”

The culture of QAnon, mind you, is suffused with webs, connections, and tenuous linkages. Adherents spend their days sifting through a morass of meaningless ephemera, torturing meaning and theories out of them, connecting individuals and clues to spin ever more elaborate conclusions. When James Comey tweeted out his #FiveJobsI’veHad, a Q sleuth read the hashtag as an acronym for “Five JIHad,” and then took the initials of the five jobs in Comey’s list — G-V-C-S-F — as evidence that something terrible was about to happen at a fundraiser for the Grass Valley Charter School Foundation.

But such linkages and theories are forgotten almost as soon as they’re proposed. When nothing happened in Grass Valley, the theory was abandoned and the QAnon community moved on to the next conspiracy. Such webs of mystery may have momentary significance, but they never endure because they’re never the main point. They are always at best a provisional explanation that serves to briefly sustain the underlying concerns.

The end result is always the same: You don’t need to learn the catechism; you only have to want the Good News. All that’s required for buy-in is the final conclusion: the election was rigged, masks aren’t necessary, vaccines are poison. Ultimately, people who subscribe to the kinds of theories peddled by Alex Jones or Marjorie Taylor Greene are not looking for a causal, logical explanation for the state of the world we live in, but rather for permission to feel how they want to feel or embrace the behavior they’re looking to embrace. The less said, the better.

Rather than visualizing contemporary conspiracy theories as a web of connections, it may make more sense to borrow a concept from Systems Theory: the Black Box. A metaphor for any computer or engineering system for which the internal workings are either unknown or irrelevant, Black Box systems direct our focus entirely to what goes in and what comes out. As physicist Mario Bunge explained in 1963, “A black box is a fiction representing a set of concrete systems into which stimuli S impinge and out of which reactions R emerge. The constitution and structure of the box are altogether irrelevant to the approach under consideration, which is purely external or phenomenological. In other words, only the behavior of the system will be accounted for.” Inside the Black Box, there may be a complicated web of associations — a hidden Conspiracy Wall — but there needn’t be. For a conspiracy to spread, all that’s required is the belief that some mechanism allows for the desired output.

This lateral, associative structure has come to define how we experience the internet. Everything is always leading to something else, and everything is connected

Shifting these metaphors is important because it helps shift the focus of where to direct our energy. The Conspiracy Wall metaphor implies that a conspiracy theorist is motivated, and persuaded, by logic, the desire for some kind of causal explanation — one that can then be dismantled, argued against, disproven. But very often people are not looking for answers; they’re looking for permission. The wall itself is only ever a side effect, a justification. What matters is the desire, the output reaction. And those of us wishing to dismantle the kinds of conspiracy theories disseminated by the far right have to start there. What is the drive and desire enabled by the conspiracy theory, what is the root psychological need that the conspiracy theory satisfies — and how do we start addressing that?

The Conspiracy Wall metaphor persists in part because it mirrors our understanding of the internet itself — intricately linked, everything connected to something else, an ever-expanding web — and as such, has come to represent how we see reality. A cinematic Conspiracy Wall may be employed to find a killer or solve a mystery, but its actual structure is circular, without beginning or ending, everything just leading to the next node. Internet theorist Jason Brown, who’s given lectures on the “paranoid” structure of the web for over two decades, points out that the earliest visualizations of what would become the internet — the ARPANET maps of the 1970s — bear a striking visual similarity to Conspiracy Walls: nodes stretched out across the United States, connected by lines denoting the spatial layout of the network. “Rather than try to cleanly index brand new things into brand new categories,” he told me, the web’s earliest designers decided it was far easier to “just link things together where researchers saw a connection.” This lateral, associative structure has come to define how we experience the internet, as evidenced by the words we’ve come to use to describe it: “web,” “threads,” “breadcrumbs,” “links,” and so on. Everything is always leading to something else, and everything is connected.

The Conspiracy Wall remains compelling because it offers a reassuring world where everything is connected, and where everything finally adds up. As such, it may have less to do with how the paranoid mind works and more with reflecting our experience with the technologies that bind us — television and the internet. We all spend our time looking for meaning, and searching for a signal amid the noise; the paranoid mind is simply positing signals that don’t really exist. But one way or another, all of us — the rational and the irrational — are just looking for connections.

Colin Dickey is the author of, most recently, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, and the forthcoming The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained.