The FBI has officially designated belief in conspiracy theories as a domestic terror threat, according to a previously unreported document discovered and publicized by Yahoo! News this week. The FBI intelligence bulletin was published in May and specifically identifies fringe conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon as potential terror threats for the first time in the Bureau’s history. “The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” the document states. The document lists conspiracy theories regularly featured on cable television and social media, such as the New World Order and HAARP mind control beams, as potential threats.
While experts may disagree on the degree to which conspiracy theories are a driver of domestic extremism rather than a justification for it, the FBI’s identification of conspiracy theories as a risk factor for domestic terrorism should give pause to those in the media who treat these beliefs as “fun” entertainment. The FBI document basically treats conspiracy theories as a method of radicalization, seducing the vulnerable and enflaming their passions, either through their use by domestic terror groups or through self-radicalization via internet exposure.
Weirdly enough, this was a point that I raised when I spoke with a producer for a company that had just sold a show described as an Ancient Aliens knockoff revolving around high tech archaeology tools to a major cable channel this week. Out of respect, I won’t name the channel so as not to identify the producer, but you can certainly guess which one. It’s one of the channels I regularly criticize, so I had no illusions that the network would ever let me on their air. The production company, weirdly enough, produced a wretched special about the Knights Templar and a terrible pseudoarchaeology series, both of which I savaged in these pages.
I used the time to impress upon the producer the social responsibility that media producers have to consider the consequences of the conspiracy theories they spin. More than a few lead to radicalization by driving viewers to other purveyors of similar conspiracies, with their more extreme versions and racist and radical agendas.
The producer admitted to me that he had no interest in the program as it was being developed. It had begun, he said, as a show about advances in the technologies and tools used in archaeology, but the network issued an ultimatum that they would not purchase any show about historical subjects unless it featured a radical conspiracy theory such as aliens, Atlantis, or Templars. The production company chose cash over integrity and altered the program to speculate wildly about how satellites and various scanners can uncover evidence of aliens and Atlantis.
I found it terribly depressing—but not at all surprising—that conspiracy theories are actually mandated as a condition of selling to certain cable channels. That kind of short-sighted thinking closes off creativity and virtually guarantees that every show is tightly tied to a small range of potential topics that viewers supposedly respond to—aliens, Atlantis, Templars, etc. But you aren’t going to grow your audience by feeding them recycled leftovers, and it seems counterproductive to assume that viewers only want to watch the same narrow group of topics (actually, narrowing—the range of topics used to be vaster before niche programming was so hyper-specific) over and over again.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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