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Making sense of conspiracy theorists as the world gets more bizarre

Jon Ronson
·12-min read

In 1999 I sat in a Vancouver café with a group of anti-capitalist activists. They’d just returned from protesting the WTO in Seattle to find a new, far stranger foe in town – David Icke. He was there to lecture about how the ruling elite are actually child-sacrificing, blood-drinking paedophile lizards in human disguise.

Nobody had ever suggested such a thing before, and the activists were working to get his books seized and destroyed. They were alarmed not just by the echoes of antisemitism but because something startling was happening. Icke was beginning to win over people who should have been on their side. I wrote back then that they were “seeing an omen of the blackest kind, the future of thought itself: a time when irrational thought would sweep the land”. But this wasn’t prophecy on my part. I thought they were probably being overdramatic.

I spent much of the late 1990s chronicling the embryonic world of Satanic Hollywood lizard paedophile conspiracy theories for my book, Them: Adventures with Extremists, which turns 20 this week. Lately, of course, the theories have proliferated wildly – radicalising unparalleled swathes of YouTubers, inspiring an insurrection and reportedly in the past two years at least one murder and a suicide bombing. I feel lucky to have been there at its inception, but annoyed with myself for not anticipating quite how vast and malevolent things would get. Looking back, were there clues?

It was a tip-off from a militant Islamist that alerted me to that fledgling world. In 1995 the director Saul Dibb and I began filming Omar Bakri Mohammed, who had just announced that he wouldn’t rest until he saw the flag of Islam flying over Downing Street.

“Maybe,” our editor at Channel 4 said, “it’ll be the Islamic fundamentalist version of following around Hitler the watercolourist.”

Omar Bakri’s jihad campaign was indeed so nascent we had to drive him to Office World to get his “Islam the Future for Britain” pamphlets photocopied. His sweet 13-year-old son Mohammed flapped around anxiously, watching the Malcolm X biopic and worrying that his father might one day be assassinated, too.

Fifteen years later, Omar Bakri was imprisoned in Lebanon for supporting terrorism. His anxious teenage son Mohammed grew up, joined Isis, and was murdered by them, reportedly for cursing the Prophet Muhammad. It was heartbreaking. But these days when I recall the “Hitler the watercolourist” comment, I mostly remember a remark made by one of Omar’s circle during our first day’s reporting.

The man was recounting his daydream of releasing a swarm of mice into United Nations headquarters when he suddenly asked if I was aware that the world was being secretly controlled by a network of shadowy cabals from secret rooms. A year later I met a Ku Klux Klansman in Arkansas who was consumed by the same shadowy cabal conspiracy theories, and that’s when it hit me: there was an under-chronicled relationship between 1990s political and religious extremism and conspiratorial thinking. So I started hanging around the conspiracy world.

And, in hindsight, it was all clues. The most popular tables at the gun shows were frequently the ones selling the conspiracy VHS tapes – recordings of very long conversations between unengaging men in public access TV studios. They’d discuss how the Illuminati were the puppet masters behind the deaths at David Koresh’s church in Waco, or how the all-seeing eye on the dollar bill was evidence of the Illuminati’s takeover of the Federal Reserve. They were as dull as anything, but due to their scarcity the VHSs were passed around militia circles like rare jewels, gun-show Rosetta stones.

Alex Jones amid marchers in support of Trump in 2020.
Capture the crowd: Alex Jones marches in support of Trump in 2020. Photograph: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Then there was Art Bell’s popular paranormal radio show, Coast to Coast AM, broadcast from Bell’s desert home in Pahrump, Nevada. Ten million Americans routinely tuned in to hear spellbinding night-time tales of ghosts and UFOs and conspiracies – like how the streaks of condensation you see coming from aeroplanes are actually chemicals designed to keep the masses docile. It was the perfect theory for the extremely lazy. No travelling was necessary, no trips to ancient rune sites or whatever. You only had to look out of your window and up into the sky to see the smoking gun. It was Miss Marple for those who wanted to expend as little physical exertion as possible.

These days nothing much has changed, except instead of streaks of vapour and the dollar bill they’re deciphering clues in Beyoncé videos and Chrissy Teigen’s tweets. For QAnon to work, adherents have to allow themselves to believe that the secret paedophile elite, despite their Machiavellian genius, can’t resist leaving little visible pointers to their malevolent power, like a thief placing a monogrammed glove at the scene of the crime. It’s lucky for the armchair detective that that’s their achilles heel.

Looking back then, it’s obvious that all the movement needed was a much better distribution system and some charismatic leaders, Art Bell being reclusive and not a tub-thumper.

It turned out I had a knack for star-spotting future conspiracy luminaries – although, to be honest, it wasn’t hard. In the 1990s two men towered over the others in terms of oratory skills and engrossing theories – David Icke and Alex Jones.

* * *

In 1991 Icke, then a popular BBC sports presenter, unexpectedly announced on Wogan that he was the son of God. The screams of laughter from the studio audience felt like a firing squad. When I met him soon afterwards he said of that interview: “One of my very greatest fears as a child was being ridiculed in public. As a television presenter people come up to you and shake your hand and talk to you in a respectful way. And suddenly, overnight, this was transformed into ‘Icke’s a nutter.’ I couldn’t walk down any street in Britain without being laughed at. That was so important for me in understanding how it was possible for a relatively few people in key positions to run the world. They do it by manipulating the way people think and feel.”

I felt quite sure then, and still do, that he was right about that last part. The mainstream media loves to form a consensus about who the new most ridiculed person ought to be. The same is true of social media, of course. Sometimes these warring factions disagree, and a person monsterised by one clique is deemed a magnificent hero by another, but with each wild generalisation our grey areas become unfashionable and there’s a narrowing of what constitutes an acceptable person.

All the conspiracy movement needed was charismatic leaders

But there was something that the mainstream media, in its hubris, failed to notice about David Icke: a growing number of people were feeling more aligned to him than to his tormentors. These were people who also, for their own reasons, felt ridiculed and shut out of the culture. And so when Icke re-emerged with his paedophile lizard theory he immediately began selling out concert halls across the world. It was an incredibly surprising and, I suspect, spiteful story born from injury: conspiracy theory as grievance storytelling. And it was a dangerous theory, with its appeals to paranoia and delusion.

When sceptics are asked to explain why people succumb to conspiracy theories, they tend to say they offer a strange comfort – they allow people to make sense of a chaotic world. But I think there’s another, more often ignored reason. You get renaissances of conspiracy theories when the powerful behave in conspiratorial ways. The mystery is why the theorists are never happy with the actual evidence, and instead behave like amateur sleuths inside some magical parallel world where metaphors are facts. In that world, the deaths at David Koresh’s church in Waco were caused not by government overreach but by the Illuminati’s Satanic desire for blood sacrifice. Why they invariably slap a layer of fiction on top of an already fascinating truth had long been a puzzle to me, and to many others, too: a question I’ve been asked over and over is whether I think Alex Jones knows he’s lying when he tells his millions of listeners that, for instance, the Sandy Hook school shootings were “a giant hoax”.

Finally, after 20 years, I think I’ve figured the answer out.

I first met Alex Jones at the site of David Koresh’s church, five years after 76 Branch Davidians died there. I’d been told that an Austin conspiracy radio host was organising its rebuilding with listener donations. As I drove in I saw a bunch of militia people – bikers and separatists – hammering away, but when Jones wandered towards them they turned tongue-tied and star-struck. Jones was 26, unknown outside militia and Austin hipster circles, but clearly, as his future wife Kelly put it to me that week, “a new sensation”.

I visited his home and watched him broadcast down an ISDN line in a child’s bedroom decorated with choo-choo train wallpaper. He was mesmerising. “We see decadent empires in their final stages of corruption as they become insane!” he yelled of the Waco siege. “Engaging in mass murder, just to do it! Are you going to be that Aztec villager who hands his child over to be lunchmeat for the priesthood?” Between his incredible eloquence and his disregard for the truth, he was unstoppable.

But unlike David Icke, it turns out that Jones’s conspiratorial thinking has nothing to do with being ridiculed or cast out of society. Two years ago I visited some of his classmates for a story about his teenage years. He was raised by loving parents in a gated community in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall. According to everyone we spoke to, he wasn’t bullied at school. He was the bully – the most violent bully at Rockwall High. He beat one boy, Jared, almost to death. Jared says he has never fully recovered. (Jones claims he was defending himself.) And from the beginning, Jones was a conspiracy theorist. “He always had something to say about the teachers and the principal and the school cop,” Jared told me. “If we were at the pool hall, it was ‘the guy that owns the pool hall has called the DEA and they’re setting a deal up.’ It was weird, man. Everybody was like, what?”

In 2017, I spent a few days in a courtroom watching Jones and his now ex-wife Kelly go through what divorce lawyers were calling Austin’s most acrimonious child custody hearing in living memory. At one point as I sat in the gallery a court psychologist, Alissa Sherry, was called to give evidence about Jones’s mental state. She testified that he had been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.

At first, I felt sad for him, wondering if he was embarrassed that a thing like that had come out in court. But I kept thinking about it and, honestly, it answers a lot of questions. High-scoring narcissists are prone to paranoia and black-and-white thinking. Through their eyes everyone is either wonderful or else they’re the enemy. (Often the wonderful person commits some minor transgression and instantly becomes the enemy; if you’ve been close to a narcissist you’ll probably recognise that “love-bomb, devalue, discard” relationship arc.) And narcissists need to feel like they’re the smartest person in the room – hence, I suspect, their reaching for conspiracy theories with their obnoxiously counterintuitive, superficially complex worldviews.

With David Icke and Alex Jones the movement had found its stars. So now all it needed was a better distribution system. Unfortunately the one it got turned out to massively exacerbate our proclivity for paranoia and black-and-white thinking – social media algorithms.

* * *

In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook executives had realised four years earlier that its algorithms were “exploiting the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness” – like the startling fact that 64% of users who joined extremist groups were enticed to do so by clicking on the “Groups you should join” and “Discover” buttons. Inside the company there was alarm. What might these rabbit holes be doing to users’ mental health and to society? Internal teams suggested numerous fixes – algorithmic tweaks to make the site more civil. But the executives nicknamed the proposals “Eat Your Veggies” and ignored them. (They argued that it was for reasons of fairness: there are more far-right pages on Facebook, so any changes would have disproportionately affected conservatives.) Facebook claimed in 2020 that it had changed in the years since these deliberations.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, I could easily concoct a theory about the man instrumental in killing the recommendations. He was Facebook’s policy chief, Joel Kaplan. In 2000, when Kaplan was an adviser to George W Bush’s election campaign, he was present at the Brooks Brothers riot, where dozens of paid Republican operatives masquerading as concerned citizens stormed Miami-Dade polling headquarters with the goal of shutting down the recount. They pounded on windows and chanted “Stop the fraud!” In the ensuing chaos, the recount was abandoned and Bush was elected president.

Between 2001 and 2009 Kaplan worked for the Bush administration’s policy and budget management offices. During that time the administration launched Operation Shock and Awe in Iraq. Shock and Awe was described by Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine as economic strategy: “the brutal tactic of using the public’s disorientation following a collective shock – wars, coups, terrorist attacks, market crashes or natural disasters – to push through radical pro-corporate measures”.

And so Kaplan was right there at three pivotal moments in recent history when his employers’ goals were furthered by creating disorienting chaos. The tech utopians and their devotion to algorithms was the one clue I could never have anticipated. I could describe Kaplan as a player in a conspiracy. But what it really was, I suppose, is business.

  • Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson (Picador) is available from the Guardian Bookshop at £9.99