Yesterday in Hell World we heard from three reporters who regularly cover the world of online extremism and white nationalists about what sort of toll it takes on a person wading into the shit soup of the diseased soul day after day. Please be sure to check it out here if you haven’t already. And don’t forget to smash that subscribe button up there to get more Hell World in your inbox various non-specified times a week.
Ben Collins, a self-described reporter on the dystopia beat for NBC News, was meant to chime in as well but he got held up reporting on a Pizzagate-style story in which a Portland doughnut shop was being targeted as the latest secret layer of pedophilia in the minds of the brain-worm infested conspiracy theorists.
Ben was kind enough to respond at length to my questions, even though he missed my deadline, something I don’t think I ever did for him when he was my editor at Esquire.
Did you chance into this extremist/ online conspiracy theorists beat or did you see it developing as a sort of unfortunate boom industry a few years ago and decide to focus on it?
My path is a little more direct. I had always been vaguely sucked into conspiracy theories. I grew up in the middle of nowhere with access to a nascent version of the internet and no discernible skills. This was the kind of thing I had time for. I'd downloaded Loose Change from Limewire as a kid. A buddy of mine got me a copy of the Warren Commission, quasi-ironically.
I was covering vaguely internetty things for The Daily Beast for a while. Weird Facebook groups trolling locals into thinking there would be a Limp Bizkit concert at a gas station in Dayton, Ohio. That sort of thing. It was fun, and I was pretty optimistic about this whole thing as a tool for bringing people together and all of that. Then an old buddy of mine became the center of one of these things.
I went to college with Chris Hurst, whose longtime girlfriend was shot and killed on live TV by a disgruntled coworker. While he was being bombarded with all of this stuff, with the videos and the photos of the actual shooting all over the web, I Googled his name.
These people are the "last believers in an ordered universe"
In the first couple of pages of results, no matter where you went, you'd mostly see "Christ Hurst crisis actor." There was an autocomplete for "Chris Hurst crisis actor." This was true Wild West stuff, complete goons -- not even InfoWars -- showing some sheer domination over Google's algorithm. Then I watched their videos on YouTube and went to their Blogspots (it was 2015) and all of that. I just sat there and stewed and got sadder.
I remember pitching a story about it at the morning meeting at The Beast, asking people if they knew what a crisis actor was. Pretty much nobody did, and it occurred to me I didn't even know when I learned the word. It was just always in the ether for me, and I probably would've entertained the idea of it if I stayed living in the woods.
I asked if I could call all the people making these YouTube videos and ask them how they got to believing Chris, who was captain of the intramural Emerson College wiffle ball team for players who did not get picked at the Emerson wiffle ball annual combine (which is some unbelievably roastable nonsense), was somehow not the human he said he was. I called a bunch of professors who studied conspiracy theories. Some were political types, others logistical, one philosophical. I still talk to the philosophical one all the time, because he let me see these hapless YouTubers as particularly vulnerable people. This was important, because the only emotions I would've had access to when talking to them was visceral anger and weird despair.
The professor's name is Brian Keeley and he's at Pitzer College. He wrote that these people are the "last believers in an ordered universe," that these folks lean on these things as a crutch to make up for the inherent disorder and chaos that comes with seeing random death and unfair circumstances on the news all day. It helped me deal with it all.
People who believe that stuff are making decisions at the highest levels of our government
I called the YouTube guys. They didn't believe me. I pled with them. I put the pleading in the piece. They still didn't believe me. The piece ended. That was in 2015. Since then, YouTubers saying garbage like that have discovered you can just do that and nothing else for a living. People who believe that stuff are making decisions at the highest levels of our government. All of those professors who wrote about these conspiracies decades ago, and got called sparingly by reporters, are all on NPR now more frequently than bad jazz interludes.
They have come to dominate the culture. I spent the last few years thinking the rise of these people who are so willing to dehumanize strangers for cash on Youtube was confirmation bias, that I only thought it was bigger because of my beat. I thought I was, if anything, taking it too seriously.
I, uh, pretty speedily recalibrated on election night 2016. Then I realized I had to roll up my sleeves after that guy shot into a pizza shop looking for the child sex basement a month later.
What sort of toll does it take on your mental health? I dabble in it myself, but there have been times I thought about focusing on it more and said to myself, Nah, I don’t need that shit in my brain all the time.
I started writing something about this over the weekend, and I was going to tell you how it doesn't faze me as much as it used to, that you frankly get bored by the same picture of a frog above a racial slur, that I've grown out of taking their threats all too seriously.
Then another shooting happened, and a bunch of people made up stuff about the shooter again, and got another innocent guy wrapped up in it again, and you remember how much it wears on you.
You never really get back to equilibrium. You’re never really fully, functionally normal. You show up at parties and talk about Paul Joseph Watson as if that’s somebody a regular person would be aware of, and they’re not, of course they’re not, and you just want to hug them and tell them how much you love them and implore them to never look at a computer for the rest of their beautiful, childlike lives. Their lives, I imagine, look like people in a Claritin commercial—running through a field at permanent dawn, picking flowers, and doing absolutely nothing else. It really makes you appreciate everyone else, and grounds you substantially.
There’s just a slow creep of insanity through osmosis. You pick up the conspiracy tics that someone, somewhere is out to get you. I have those dreams you wake up in the middle of, that somebody’s trying to break in and get back at you for writing about their secret extremist Twitter account or something. And it’s just a dumb nightmare, but I wake up and stew on it, knowing there are people who are capable of that, but limited only by their own laziness.
I have, as a coping mechanism, gotten deeply into things that used to occupy the periphery of stuff anyone else would care about. I can identify NBA contract length and money pretty much down to the dollar and year, even for end-of-the-bench guys. My Spotify playlists are immaculate. I go to weirder concerts and bad movies now. It has opened up a lot of my life, simply because I have forced myself to care about other things with the same level of probably too-intense granularity. This is probably deeply obnoxious to everyone else in my life. I am very thankful the people around me have viewed this as a quirk and not a disaster.
Has it changed your faith in humanity in anyway? Made you more or less cynical about things?
I’ll refer you back to Brian Keeley here, but there’s very little actual malice by the believers of these things.
The people selling the lies? The people who know this stuff isn’t true and accuse people of pedophilia as some sort of elaborate revenge fantasy that has come to define and shape their lives? Those people are disgusting, and they’ve been deeply hurt by something a long time ago that they did not let go of.
Kids need media literacy and civics classes, badly.
But here’s Brian on conspiracy as opiate, as coping mechanism:
"Just as with the physical world, where hurricanes, tornadoes, and other ‘acts of God’ just happen, the same is true of the social world. Some people just do things. They assassinate world leaders, act on poorly thought out ideologies, and leave clues at the scene of the crime. Too strong a belief in the rationality of people in general, or of the world, will lead us to seek purposive explanations where none exists.”
The world is big and scary. It’s much easier for these people to believe nefarious agents are wreaking havoc than to come to grips with the randomness of their lives. It’s religion. Blame the false prophets who are in on it, who have made supplement empires out of the violence. But feel bad for the dupes.
Was there a particular instance of something you saw that shook you at all?
When I saw that whole family in Q shirts, I realized this is going to be a longstanding thing. I’m not sure how you decouple your parents telling you “don’t put tinfoil in the microwave” and “be careful of the donut shop down the street, former First Lady and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton is kidnapping all of your fellow five-year-olds for rape and murder purposes” in the same breath. You don’t unlearn just one of those things. That stuff stays with you, and we’re going to face a unique challenge in detoxifying these people from this absolutely abjectly wrong and stupid garbage.
In the meantime, push for more media literacy. Kids need media literacy and civics classes, badly. Worse than they need to learn about calculating diameters or whatever nonsense. This stuff can be taught and it isn’t, and it has an enormous, outsized impact on this world. This problem is extremely bad right now, and I’m not sure you’re going to fix late adopters to social media, like Boomers who use Qanon as an offseason CSI replacement. But if it’s going to get any better, you have to start working to fix it right now.
Is Q real? You have to tell me if it is.
It’s realer than true love.