FBI Investigating Russian Connection to InfoWars: Why Do So Many Outlets Tied to Russia Back Ancient Astronaut and UFO Conspiracies?
A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Review of Books published a brief summary of the contents of a 2016 volume called The Age of Lovecraft, but it was reviewer and Ph.D. candidate Alison Sperling’s opening line that caught my attention: “As a feminist, I am reluctant, at times, to admit to friends and academic colleagues that I appreciate H. P. Lovecraft’s work.” I found that to be a bit of an astonishing statement, largely because it, and the sentences decrying Lovecraft’s racism and sexism which followed, suggest that even among academics who should know better there is a sort of perverse identification of reader and writer, as though one’s choice of literature reveals the darkest part of one’s soul. I’ve always found that to be strange because so many of works of great literature came from the pens of people who were, by contemporary standards, miserable human beings. But even leaving that aside, could you imagine an archaeologist, for example, saying that “As someone who values human life, I am ashamed to admit that I enjoy researching Aztec culture” because of their record of human sacrifice? Of course, on the other hand we might look askance at a film student who professes not just technical admiration but love for the works of Leni Riefenstahl.
The question, then, is how much of our enjoyment of a cultural product should be read as an endorsement of its underlying themes and motifs. This is a question that came up when I was reading so-called “alt-right” intellectual Jason Reza Jorjani’s Prometheus and Atlas, which expressed admiration for a laundry list of Nazi and Nazi-adjacent philosophers. I wasn’t sure how much to say about that in reviewing the book for an academic journal, but in the end I decided that the overwhelming pattern of citing almost exclusively these Nazi-adjacent thinkers strongly implied authorial endorsement. In the case of the average person who likes Lovecraft, though, unless that person has a broad pattern of enjoying racist literature, I don’t think Lovecraftian fiction alone is a cause for concern.
What is concerning, however, are media reports this week that the FBI’s investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election has expanded to potential ties to Alex Jones’s InfoWars, specifically in terms of whether Russian bots were deployed to amplify the social media reach of selected stories. Let’s state upfront that there is no evidence as yet that Russia is connected to creating content for InfoWars, but I can’t help but note that InfoWars offers up the same UFO, Reptilian, and Nephilim conspiracies as the Kremlin-backed propaganda channel RT and Russian news site Sputnik News, which are also the subject of the FBI’s inquiry into the web of right-wing news and its ties back to Moscow. Alex Jones has been a frequent RT guest, with the Russian propaganda network using him to promote a range of anti-American conspiracy theories such as FEMA death camps. This is doubly interesting because of the longstanding pattern of ufologists, ancient astronaut theorists, and other fringe types using material originating in Soviet and Russian propaganda as part of their efforts to undermine trust in the U.S. government through dark conspiracies about America’s evil efforts to suppress the “truth.”
RT’s promotion of UFO conspiracies—a regular feature of their broadcasts—seems to be a rather direct successor to the Soviet promotion of ufology and ancient astronaut theories at a similar moment of heightened tensions with the United States. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Russian government fed a regular diet of bizarre claims, first to conspiracy theorists and fringe writers in Europe, and then directly to the American public. They operated through official propaganda organs such as Sputnik magazine and Soviet Life magazine, and through seemingly backchannel methods, such as when Soviet authorities allowed their scientist, I. S. Shklovskii, to collaborate with American scientist Carl Sagan on Intelligent Life in the Universe, a book which gave intellectual cover to the ancient astronaut theory for a generation. (Both Erich von Däniken and Robert Temple cited it for support.) Most biographers assume that the collaboration was intended as a statement against Cold War divisions, but it seems impossible that Soviet authorities would not have been aware of and encouraged the collaboration, which occurred entirely by mail, not least because it began when Sagan sent Shklovskii a copy of his 1961 article that speculated on the existence of ancient astronauts, a topic the Soviets had been promoting in the years prior by making the work of Matest M. Agrest, among others, available to European writers. Besides, Soviet authorities were known to exert rather strict control over Shklovskii, an astronomer employed by the state, whom they refused to let leave the country to meet Sagan. I am afraid I can’t share the biographers’ rather naïve optimism about Sagan breaking barriers and showing the world a better way to overcome East-West divisions. Surely the Soviet authorities read Shklovskii’s mail, too, and chose to allow collaboration because of the subject matter that they wanted to find a broader audience. Even Sagan, in his part of the book, written where Soviet censors could not touch it, acknowledged that the Soviet state believed that promoting belief in space aliens was an essential state interest. He thought it was because aliens were necessary to prove Marxism true (because dialectical materialism requires life everywhere, for some reason I don’t care about), but it could equally well be argued that promoting a belief in aliens, whether or not they exist, served to undermine faith in Western religious traditions and also the honesty and integrity of Western governments that failed to admit or report such “revelations.”
I don’t think it’s much different today. Ancient astronaut theorists routinely spout Russian propaganda, notably David Wilcock with his “secret” Russian sources, but even Ancient Aliens has devoted episodes to retelling Soviet and Russian space alien claims, all of which must be treated as propaganda until proven otherwise due to the level of control that the Russian government asserts over those who are current or former government employees. The RT network, as well as Russian publications like the new Sputnik, routinely publish UFO and ancient astronaut claims, seemingly for no newsworthy reason. They aren’t “popular” the way that, say, celebrity gossip or a goofy cat video might be, but they go viral where it counts: among the right-wing fever swamps of InfoWars and the paranoid fringe, bringing viewers into the network and opening them to more explicitly pro-Russian propaganda. They also serve the same purpose: to undermine the integrity of science, and by extension objective reality, something that the Putin government has long tried to overcome. Putin’s government has systematically undercut Russian science, promoting conspiracy theories and crackpot fringe ideas. They are useful because of their political, not scientific, value. They corrode and destroy resistance to propaganda by undermining the notion of “truth.” It probably doesn’t hurt that they also bring in young male audiences attracted to the nutty ideas and who can then be propagandized.
It's probably important to note once again that there is no public evidence that Russia is paying off conspiracy theorists or creating UFO, ancient astronaut, or Nephilim conspiracies. Instead, the evidence available right now makes it look like Russia is employing useful conspiracies through official and unofficial networks of support.
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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