Sarah Kendzior on how conspiracy theories went mainstream

They Knew explains how powerful elites like Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein managed to engage in questionable, and sometimes criminal, behavior with impunity, enabled by skilled propagandists who use conspiracy theories to distract the public and keep would-be crooks out of the glare of public and legal scrutiny.

In an interview with Kendzior, she talked about the nature of conspiracies, how social networks have responded to them, and how they might be used for political harm in the future. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You argue in the book that the industries tasked with upholding justice and accountability, including politics, law, and the media, have become the domain of the wealthy class. The biggest takeaway of your book, for me, is that that’s why conspiracy theories—which often contain kernels of truth—never get seriously investigated. Can you unpack that for me?

The media-political echo chamber is now more sparsely populated than it was in decades past when there wasn’t such a great barrier to entry for journalism. And journalism was more challenging toward power and toward authority. We now have a system where expensive credentials are required, often unpaid internships, payment and exposure, so on and so forth. It’s changed a little for the better, I think, in recent years; with unions emerging at least these issues are being called out more forthrightly than when I first started writing about them over a decade ago.

The repercussions of that, however, politically, are right in front of us: the elevation of somebody like Jared Kushner, who is a product of this purchased merit system. And the way that people tiptoe around the very serious crimes and conspiracies at the heart of the Trump administration, but also other political actors, including within the Democratic Party. Access journalism has become the norm.

And so you have to ask yourself, who has access, and why? People within these born-wealthy, rarified social circles are the ones not just with access, but who want to preserve their own place in the hierarchy. And to do that, they have to protect powerful actors. That’s bad enough in its own right, but when a crime cult gets into power, as was the case with the Trump administration, it means you’re playing PR flack for a lot of really dangerous individuals [involved in] very real conspiracies. Examples are the Epstein-Maxwell operation, the coup plot for Trump, and the January 6th attacks. Those are true conspiracies, as in people who got together, secretly planned them, carried them out, and covered them up.

They don’t want to delve too deeply into that because it implicates people around them who were involved, not necessarily as people being directly involved, but as witnesses. And you sometimes see after the fact, when this horrific conspiracy is revealed as such, they will admit that they knew all along, and that’s part of where the title came from.

Do you believe that’s happened when known-name reporters from the Washington Post and New York Times have reported on people like Donald Trump?

It depends on the reporters because there has been real investigative work that at least tries to look into finances. I think there is often a top-down effort within these organizations, at the Washington Post and the New York Times, to suppress the hard work and reporting of their own staff. We’ve heard them complaining about this, and we’ve seen people quit. A lot of the people who are elevated are often products of nepotism or people whose own family members are in fact former employees of the Trump family or the Kushner family. I mean, Maggie Haberman’s mother worked for Rubenstein, the publicity firm that represented Trump, Kushner, Epstein, Rupert Murdoch, and so on. I try to judge her purely by her work, by her reporting, which I think is very bad in its own right, but it’s hard to separate that kind of background—those very personal ties, the fact that Roger Stone is a friend of the family and knows her children’s birthdays—from the reporting. I don’t know how you can remain objective in those circumstances, and it’s not brought up a lot.

I think it’s relevant because she’s an example of a type, and an extreme example. But there are many [journalists] who were born into wealth and privilege and got their jobs because they could afford to live in a very expensive city on a very low salary. I think it just leads to poor reporting because so many stories remain untold, and so many corrupt figures go unchallenged. Again, this is not across the board; there are people out there doing this very arduous work. But given the way the media has been consolidated and also defunded—particularly investigative journalism—it’s even harder, I think, for regular folks to be able to afford to do this kind of work.

During the pandemic, QAnon and conspiracy theories became a mainstream phenomenon. Why did people seem to need them? Why do you think that my neighbor, who is ordinarily a rational person, got involved with something like QAnon?

I think there are multiple things going on. I . . . think we spent an enormous amount of time on the internet in 2020 and 2021, and I don’t think it was good for anybody. Everybody was traumatized, everybody was afraid, everybody wanted answers. And when you’re in that kind of mode, psychologically, I do think you’re more susceptible to propaganda. You also have a lot of time on your hands to investigate things and you’re looking for a sense of community, and I think some people found that with QAnon. And I also think people found it in the cults around political leaders, whether on the right with Trump, but also around Mueller, around Fauci. I think people are drawn to saviors; they’re drawn to this idea that somebody is going to step in and save us all from malicious actors, particularly in the quote-unquote deep state.

[P]eople didn’t just show up at random on January 6, wearing matching January 6 Civil War T-shirts.”

–Sarah Kendzior

The thing is, though, it’s not entirely a contrived movement. It’s an organic movement that counts regular folks as adherents. And I think a lot of those people were looking for an explanation about the corruption that they saw. They often came at it from more of a right-wing perspective. They watched segments on Fox News or they saw something on Breitbart, Facebook memes, or whatever. But I do think it’s a diverse array of people in terms of [political] perspective, and some are simply looking for the truth. And the unfortunate thing is that they had an advantage because the mainstream media and our officials in Congress and the FBI shy away from things like the Epstein-Maxwell case. They didn’t want to investigate it or prosecute it. They covered it up. They didn’t report on it accurately or adequately or in a timely way.

And so when Epstein eventually committed suicide in prison, QAnon and its acolytes looked like they had this incredible foresight, that they were on the ball when everybody else had been looking the other way. They reported on it so extensively, and it gave them the look of legitimacy to other people seeking information about that particular topic. The problem is, then they get drawn into the fold and start looking at stuff like John F. Kennedy Jr. rising from the dead and cannibals and all sorts of other things that are not based on evidence or truth.

I had the idea that those QAnon people are wackos, or just lonely or bored or isolated, and many of them latch onto a certain belief and then scour heaven and earth to put evidence behind that belief. Are we giving those people too much credit?

Well, it’s a giant group of people that immerse themselves in this kind of movement. . . . A lot of folks really were just deeply bored and kind of followed it almost like a TV show. Do these people have critical thinking skills? Research skills? The thing is, I don’t think that this is necessarily brilliant detective work on the part of QAnon-affiliated actors who delve into the actual stuff. The evidence was all out there; it was being purposely buried to a certain extent. You had to kind of dig it out, but it was in the public domain. So all you had to do was work online at mainstream sources. They were using court documents, official documents, testimonies, things like that. They were using the same sources that were available to anybody, including to the mainstream media owners.

Roseanne Barr is an early example of people who were Trump diehards, and they had this kind of messianic view of him, and a lot of that was cultivated within QAnon. They believed that their savior would be protected, that everything bad happening to him—the arrests of many of this campaign staff as foreign agents or money launderers or whatnot—was all part of the plan. You should always trust the plan, and they tapped into that desire for a palatable narrative within the Trump base. Similar kinds of propaganda operations tapped into that kind of desire within the Democratic base, saying that arrests are always imminent, and Trump is going down.

And as you say in the book, there’s a version of this savior figure for both sides. My messiah was Robert Mueller.

A lot of people got their hopes up with Mueller. But the longer the investigation went on, the more damage Trump did, the more information that came out at the time. And this is the time I actually think investigative journalism was getting better. People really were willing to dig into the stories they had avoided in 2015, 2016 about people in Trump’s vicinity, with Kushner with ties to Russia and so forth. So I get that people got their hopes up. The problem was when it became clear this was not going to lead to an indictment, and that something was very wrong. And there were obvious signs of that when judges in these cases related to the Mueller probe were getting threatened with violence and death. That happened to the judge in the Manafort trial, and to the judge in the Stone trial. And then suddenly everything kind of just shuts down at once. And Barr deals the final death blow.

I found the part of the book about Pizzagate to be fascinating, and a little surprising. I think what you’re saying is that Pizzagate (which said Democratic elites were running a child sex ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor called Comet Ping Pong) wasn’t just this crazy conspiracy theory that bubbled up from the internet, but rather a preplanned propaganda event, a weaponized conspiracy theory, all cooked up by people like Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon as a way of throwing people off the scent of real crimes.

Right before the 2016 election, a woman said in court that she was raped by Trump when she was 13 years old, and she was a victim of the Epstein trafficking operation. She was going to hold a press conference about a week before the election. That was all cancelled because she and her attorney were both threatened with death.

Shortly after that, the Pizzagate movement really took off. It wasn’t just random folks on the internet putting this out there. It was people like Michael Flynn and Michael Flynn’s son; it was operatives like Mike Cernovich, who is part of this Republican apparatus. At the time, a lot of folks looked at these individuals as very unconventional . . . I don’t think people checked into this seriously as a means of propaganda because they were like, “Well, what kind of person would believe that there was a rape dungeon for children in the basement of Comet Ping Pong? That’s obviously crazy.”

But the thing is, that rumor was emerging in the midst of a lot of suspicions about rich and powerful people being implicated in pedophile-trafficking operations, including Prince Andrew, Ahud Barack, and Bill Clinton (by proxy, he flew on the [Epstein] plane).

So [Pizzagate] was put out there to make everyone not want to report on it. Because you don’t want to elevate it. You may accidentally be spreading that rumor by reporting on it. So there’s some understandable hesitancy there. But they also didn’t want to report on the real stories underneath, that there is this history of U.S. political officials and other powerful global elites raping girls or children procured by these awful transnational operations.

Yeah, that kind of blows my mind. I mean, when I think of the creativity that must have been needed to think of something like Pizzagate, it’s almost incredible and, honestly, it makes people like Stone and Flynn look like diabolical geniuses.

I kind of think they are! I’m not complimenting them; I think they’re horrible people, like emphasis on the diabolical. But these are very, very intelligent people who have tremendous insight into human behavior and decades of experience in propaganda and media and political manipulation. This is their job, and it has been their whole lives. So it’s not surprising that they’d be very successful, and it’s not surprising that they’ve used these unconventional methods because that’s what they’ve done the whole time. They hide it under this kind of outlandish behavior—these costumes and these obnoxious phrases or the long, profanity-fueled rants because they know that quote-unquote respectable people will blow it all off; they’ll look at them [as] too ridiculous to possibly pull off this kind of plot, and not as people who understand American pop culture, American media, and American disillusionment, and the fact that an awful lot of people are fed up about what’s going on.

Based on everything that you’ve discovered about conspiracy theories and the people who participate in them, how thoughtful do you think the major social networks were about moderating or censoring or banning that kind of content?

I think if you’re threatening somebody with violence, if you’re doxxing somebody, it’s that kind of behavior that I think the ban is merited. If you are just giving information, especially if it’s based on public domain documents, court documents, reports, and so on, and criticizing power, I don’t think that’s cause for that.

I [remember] seeing pretty well-researched threads from some of those [QAnon] individuals. They’re all gone. The people who announced on Twitter and other social media that they intended to storm the Capitol on January 6, that they were looking for hotel reservations and all this kind of day-to-day minutia. Their accounts were wiped, of course. Trump was deleted as well. I think if there was a problem with those accounts—if they contained information that could be disinformation or information that could be damaging—they should have just been frozen as historical documents and evidence. So that they can see that this was a plot, and that people didn’t just show up at random on January 6 wearing matching January 6 Civil War T-shirts.

I’ve got to tell you that, as I got into your book, I found myself in kind of a dark place. When you have a class of rich untouchables who commit crimes with impunity and are simply above the law, it makes you feel powerless, and you wonder how a democracy can survive with that going on. Where do you see this going? Could the pendulum swing back toward truth and justice somehow?

I think you have to push the pendulum. I don’t think it swings on its own immediately. And the way that it’s headed now is to a very dark place, and it’s dark, in part, because people don’t want to illuminate it. They don’t want to illuminate all the corrupt things that transpired over decades. They don’t want to reconcile with elite criminal impunity, and I think that’s understandable. I mean, we’re living through a pandemic, we’re living through climate catastrophes. There’s so many things to stress people out in the daily lives. To add this to it is overwhelming.

I do this for a living, and I get overwhelmed from the emotional toll that it takes. But the problem is that other people whose job it is to look at this, our officials in Congress or in the FBI or other investigative journalists, they tend to turn the other way and kind of look for easier topics, horse race politics, and so forth.

I don’t think we can move forward without the truth. I don’t think we can get accountability without the truth, and I think we’re owed it. I think Americans deserve better. That’s the bottom line. So when I end up in that dark place that’s what I hold on to. Just thinking of all the people who suffered as a result of these individuals and how unfair it is. There’s an obligation, and if I can contribute at all to stopping it, even if it’s just by documenting, then I’ll try to do so.

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