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Internet makes spreading conspiracies that much easier

For a while, it really seemed like relocating to Austin, Texas, (which I did back in December) was a good idea. The timing felt perfect, I missed all of that horrible snow, and its mucky wake of springslop. And Austin quickly proved itself a comfy, comparable counterpart to my old hometown. Great food, great music, a people with personality, sunlight. These are the things I will miss most from my dark cell at the FEMA camp.

I should back up. If you haven’t heard, there’s this big military operation scheduled for July here and across various locations in Texas and a few other slightly less anxious states. Jade Helm 15, as it’s known, will be an eight-week tactical simulation for elite military forces like Green Berets and Navy SEALs, allowing them to train different scenarios on terrains similar to those they might encounter overseas. I actually have a buddy who does wardrobe for these things — outfitting the various “villagers” and whatnot. Now I see he’s clearly part of the machinery of lies, and I will miss chatting with him.

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Oh, right, right. The lies. So the lie is that this whole program is actually a front for the first stages of a large-scale Obama-driven takeover of Texas. Turns out there’s a whole system of underground tunnels connecting a vast network of suspiciously shuttered Walmart facilities that will be used to process political prisoners and stage covert operations for widespread violent civil conflicts. (Talk about rollbacks!)

There’s also been an outbreak of heavily fortified FEMA “death domes” — which are presumably far more dangerous than standard domes — spreading out like fascist acne across the state.

I am privy to all of this new information because, like many Texans, I’ve started dunking my head in the cold hard truth of the Internet’s limitless wellsprings of alternative news. Had I tuned out the mainstream media sooner (AHEM!), I might not have wasted so much time unpacking all my books. That took me, like, four days. Like a growing number of Americans, I am angry.

Even our newish governor, Greg Abbott, was moved to direct the State Guard to monitor the military during its stay in Texas. Our senator, Ted Cruz, is on board too and has started prodding the Pentagon for answers. You may call it crazy, but in Texas we call it crazy comforting. Saying that you don’t want me and everyone I know shipped off to remote camps under the martial law of a shadow totalitarian regime? That shows me you really care.

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Not to suggest this whole Jade Helm thing is some sort of conspiracy theory experiencing uncanny momentum, but the traditional explanation for the uncanny momentum experienced by certain conspiracy theories has to do with our most fundamental cognitive habits as humans: In the absence of answers, we are wired to scaffold together an understanding of things, connecting scattered points into the sturdier stucture of a truth.

Before the Internet, theories like these were spread and shared through newsletters and magazines, crackly AM radio programs, and small press publications (like William Cooper’s New World Order-exposing 1991 “Behold a Pale Horse”). But today, aside from the fringe flotsam that now and then washes up in your Facebook feed, there are dozens of bustling hubs of alt-news: There’s Trunews, and World Net Daily, and Universal Free Press, and Freedom Outpost, and Intellihub, and Before It’s News, among others.

And of course, here in Austin we have Alex Jones, the mastermind of Infowars, and with his growl that makes Rush Limbaugh sound like Judy Garland, one of the most recognizable voices of the fringe. His site is a wonderland of creative cynicism, split into sections that target “Big Brother,” “Medical Tyranny,” and the “Police State.” You can read about anything from Obama training of jihadist soldiers in Syria to the virtues of Infowars Oregano Oil.

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And on his popular streaming radio show, a breathless Jones smacks his forehead at the ignorance of the masses on an assortment of topics between ads for home security systems (“When a burglar cuts your phone line, you’re defenseless”), large-scale water filters, tactical body armor, long-term food storage solutions, and Jones’s own line of Super Male Vitality supplements.

(Over on World Net Daily, life-size leather action figure Chuck Norris also pushes probiotics and sings the praises of immunity-boosting bone broth alongside his occasional fiery op-ed against Jade Helm 15 and . . . herbal supplement regulation.)

The Internet is the most fertile field of human engagement ever created, and it’s never been easier to spread manure. If we think back on the scruffy samizdat and fuzzy broadcasts of the pre-Web conspiracy industry as efforts to make sense of a world of limited information, to connect distant dots into a story, today’s Internet offers a complete saturation of dots, in which any idea can be connected to any other idea.

Podcasts and video clips and plumes of memes can carry ideas further and faster than ever before; and as revolutionary as the democratized distribution of the Internet is, it also makes stories like “Obama may arm US gangs for race war” (Subtitle: “The guillotines are ready and they are greasing the blades”) as available as . . . well, news made of actual facts.

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Of course, it’s not just the fault of the conspiracy industry. Its listeners play a role in sustaining this frenzy of fiction — though this too may just be another factor of human wiring. When things feel out of control, when life gives us reasons to be scared, we don’t want to be alone or feel unheard. We assemble, we set something on fire and circle around it. Jade Helm 15 isn’t the first or last time people are gathering around a smoldering falsehood to keep warm.


Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.