As image manipulation and distribution tools became cheaper and easier to use, there wasn’t, as many predicted, an explosion of convincingly doctored images of UFOs or Big Foot. Conspiracy theorists used these tools not to manufacture fakes but to dissect and interrogate mainstream media, reassembling undoctored scraps in paranoid configurations. Nothing is covertly manipulated; instead neglected connections are revealed. As anthropologist Kathleen Stewart once observed, “the internet was made for conspiracy theory: it is a conspiracy theory: one thing leads to another, always another link leading you deeper into no thing, no place.”
The conspiracy video is defined by bricolage: It brings together diverse media objects in something meant to be consumed in a radically different context. Quotes from MSNBC hosts, a tweet from Google Trends reporting a 4,650-percent spike in searches for MS-13, and a licensed Getty Image come together to make a story about a street gang that threatens national security. Footage from 9/11 can be sliced and diced with planes super-imposed over gaping holes for purposes of framing unanswerable questions about wing spans, projectile speeds, and melting points.
Fans are invited to consume InfoWars twice: first as media, and a second time as branded food products
Mike Dice, who specializes in Illuminati conspiracies, has well over a million followers on YouTube; Dylan Avery launched an entire 9/11 truther movement with his documentary Loose Change. But if anyone can be said to have mastered the conspiracy video genre, it would be one of Avery’s executive producers: Alex Jones. Jones’s media empire, which is housed almost exclusively on Infowars.com, began on AM talk radio and bears traces of that lineage, but most of his recent effort goes into video production. The Alex Jones Show, a four-hour program that airs Sunday through Friday to tens of millions of people, describes itself as an “antidote to fake news.”
Jones’s business model is seemingly unusual for a media company: Rather than set up a paywall or subscription service, Jones has been selling his own dietary supplements under the InfoWars Life brand since 2013. Fans are invited to consume InfoWars twice: first as media, and a second time as branded food products. New York magazine’s Seth Brown reports that according to the company that manages the InfoWars product review system, “between three percent and eight percent of purchasers generally review their products.” That means, conservatively, the store generates $12.5 million a year in gross income.
From an outsider’s perspective this seems deeply exploitative: Jones fills his audience with anxiety about infinitely powerful global conspiracies and then offers them some pills to help them sleep. It is almost as though the conspiracy spouting is a sieve to separate out the gullible from those people who won’t spend large sums of money on what are, by conventional medicine’s standards, nothing more than placebos.
Making the world of conspiracy ingestible gives the power of belief more direct, intimate stakes. If the pills seem to work, then perhaps Jones is right about other things as well
But from the perspective of the InfoWars devotee, of course, the pills are not exploitation but liberation: tangible weapons in the information war waged in Americans’ minds. Ingesting InfoWars Life products like Knockout, Cell Force, or Survival Shield X is to take the amorphous world of conspiracy and make it ingestible. This intensifies one’s commitment to the entire project, giving the power of belief more direct, intimate stakes: If you begin to question Jones’s approach to the world, you would also have to wonder whether the restful night’s sleep or that extra zip in your step was just wishful thinking. The reverse also holds: If the pills seem to work, then perhaps Jones is right about other things as well.
The pills Jones sells are not only a cash cow; they offer fans the opportunity to experience transubstantiation: the universe depicted in his show becomes expressly real once Biome Force 50 ($79.95 for 60 capsules of probiotic enzymes) touches your tongue. In this way, conspiracy theory becomes more akin to religion than entertainment.
Sociologist Peter Berger argued that religions give meaning and legitimacy to the arbitrary and often capricious nature of society, situating it within a larger cosmological order. Religion helps us, Berger writes, “explain why the particular arrangement that has developed in a particular society, in whatever sequence of historical accidents, should be faithfully adhered to, even if it is at times annoying or downright painful.” On the surface this seems almost the opposite of conspiracy theorizing, which refuses to accept society for what it appears to be on the surface and seeks deeper, hidden explanations. But conspiracy theory, like any theodicy, promises an underlying order to the chaos, to the otherwise arbitrary sufferings distributed among us.
InfoWars — and conspiracy theories in general — offer the viewer a sense of world imbued with significance. While the rest of us live in a disenchanted, bureaucratic modern world, where politics and policies seem impotent in the face of complex systems and the infinite entanglements of historical causality, those living the InfoWars Life experience a world full of direct, urgent meaning, illuminated by a deadly battle involving aliens, satanic ritual, and mind control.
Conventional religion responds to tragic events by telling adherents a comforting story about what happens after someone dies and offers a bit of metaphysical orientation by reminding us that there are larger forces at play. The sacrament of watching an InfoWars video also tells followers that the powers that be have a plan that you can endeavor only to understand, not to change. Conspiracy videos may even do religion one better, making the case that the tragedy never happened: that school shootings are carefully orchestrated false flag operations and that everyone on TV are government-paid crisis actors.
When considering the conspiracy genre, media critics should not make the mistake of comparing it with news. News organizations collect information in the world and try to condense it into a narrative. Conspiracy — like religion — does the opposite: It projects a narrative onto a set of events that can be seen, heard, felt, and, yes, tasted. It does not condense but expands the set of possible connections, seeming to explain the world while inventing one that viewers find far more reassuring.