Last week, I was pretending to have a rational conversation on Reddit about vaccination. When I say “rational conversation”, I, of course, mean that this person was ranting at me for being a “stooge of science” and an “agent of insurance companies” because I was pointing out to them that vaccination is a collective ethical good and has proven efficacy at eradicating lethal and chronic diseases. After about an hour of back-and-forth, the user taught me a whole new string of profanities and ended with two particularly strange comments. He said he is done talking to “Nazis like me who are so stupid that we would even believe in the moon landing”.
While anti-vaxxers are all the rage right now, it is easy to see why, as conspiracy theorists, they are closely aligned with the moon landing conspiracy theorists and the flat-earthers, more recently. It is the 50th anniversary of human landing on the moon (“kinda-allegedly-look-there-are-grey-areas-I-don’t-know-I-wasn’t-born-then”). Even in the world of fake news, alt-right, algorithmic trolling, and a collective suspension of disbelief on the internet, it looks like the moon landing is still the reference point that all fake-news peddlers go back to.
Moon landing conspiracy theorisation used to be serious business. They conducted painstaking research, met in secret circles, and tried to convince the world that the government was out to fool us. They were thwarted by the lack of a global platform that would amplify their voice and connect the conspirators of the world together. So, they remained in hiding, and away from common sense, caught in their own bubbles.
While the social web has done much for democratising information, there is no denying that it is also the platform that was made for the moon-landing hoax investigators. Not only is the current social media amenable to the easy distribution of dubious controversies, but it has also made these conspiracy theories a vehicle for entertainment. With multiple social media celebrities relying on attention economies of click-bait headlines and controversial statements, conspiracy theories are now produced not as facts but as opinions, and as entertainment.
The moon-landing deniers were zealots. They worked passionately at producing what they thought was counter-evidence to support their claims. The current fake news peddler does not need anything more than a streaming platform, an entertaining hook, a unique aesthetic, and a personal opinion with all the gravitas of an emoji, to put forward theories that no longer depend upon fact. In the mix and stream universe of social media, they can refurbish old conspiracies, and instead of championing a cause, merely present an ambivalent “anything is possible” attitude and presto, they are influencers.
The moon landing conspiracy theorists were quite strident in their belief but they were largely harmless — the equivalent of a man on a public transport shouting that the end is near. However, the new conspiracy theorists have very real, material consequences. We have already seen how they have been able to move elections and influence public behaviour. We have been witnessing how they have normalised fake news so that when we are faced with information that is apparently dubious, we still circulate it or shrug it off without denying it, thus reinforcing its aura.
They are dangerous not just because of what they talk about — let’s face it, people who actually believe flat earth theories are not really a great loss to civilisation, and if they want to live in Discworld, we can smile at them with benign frustration. What makes these conspiracy theorists alarming is that they are gateway drugs leading to something more frightening: the world of radicalised, alt-right, internet armies that translate the militant zeal of their digital disbelief into acts of violence in real life. It is not a surprise that social media platforms have become the default spaces where real-time shooters and persons with terrorist intent publish their live videos and radical manifestos. There is a reason why the alt-right populist movements target the anti-vaxxers as their key ambassadors for the distribution of messages. It is not a coincidence that neo-Nazi groups ally with flat-earthers and encourage them into real-life violence.
Fifty years after the moon landing, if we are still dabbling in moon-landing conspiracy theories, it is not because we are fascinated with the moon — surely, Mars is our new moon — but because the internet is the platform that the moon-landing deniers had dreamed of. With the social web, without any mechanisms for verification and an infinite possibility of producing counter-narratives, we have a telling story of what happened when information became really free and the protocols for filtering and parsing information transitioned from human understanding to artificial intelligence.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘ It all began with the giant leap that wasn’t’