Episode 22: Benjamen Walker and Wu Ming

This week we talked about conspiracy theories with Wu Ming1, of the collective Wu Ming, whose books inspired one the main conspiracy theorists on the internet, and Benjamen Walker, whose podcast often focuses on conspiracy theories. We cover: The art of blurring fact and fiction, and non-fiction, discrediting gatekeepers, can we ever really debunk, the role of satire, the hunger for complexity, pizzagate, the “deep state,” QAnon, and of course, president Trump.

Benjamen Walker tackles just these sorts of trends on his podcast, “Theory of Everything,” many of which trace back their current toxicology to 9/11. In a recent episode he delves into: when the truthers were gone, and how truthers merged into “hoaxers.” He identifies that with Sandy Hook, these hoaxes turned it into a “darker form.” He is a bit pessimistic since: “Looking for a way forward… I haven’t found it yet.”

Wu Ming is a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors formed in 2000 from a subset of the Luther Blissett community in Bologna. Previous to coming together, four members of the group wrote the novel “Q” in 1999. On 28 October 2017, references to Q emerged from the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm,” Q transformed into a government insider, with top security clearance who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Donald Trump, the “deep state”, pedophile rings, Robert Mueller, and the Clintons.

The poetry of debunking

When reflecting on Q, the transformation and viral spread of something clearly originating as a work of fiction, leads us to ask: are we at a point where we cannot debunk any more? We move from “don’t believe what you read, believe me” to “don’t believe what you see, believe me only.”

Conspiracy theories work precisely because they discredit the authority trying to debunk the theory, and authority writ large is exactly what the hoaxers are rejecting. So how do you get around this? Wu Ming suggests that a game-like way of debunking could ultimately compete with the interestingness of the actual theory.

Wu Ming1 also shared his thoughts on the art of weaving fiction and non-fiction.

“Ordinary debunking doesn’t work. Because even if you debunk, believer keep believing them…. Conspiracists provide people with something they need. There is always a kernel of truth, hidden inside a conspiracy theory, because otherwise it wouldn’t work… when we debunk a conspiracy theory, we should be aware of that a kernel of truth.”

Wu Ming proposes that one way to combat this trend is “showing the stitches” — meaning that white hats should open up about about the amount of work required to create works of fiction like Q (similar to showing how a magic trick is done). What we need, he argues, is a “poetry of debunking” that makes the truth more interesting than the theory itself.

Please join us to hear this and more in what was a very interesting episode. Plus check out more links below for more content.

Benjamen Walker episode w/Brendan Nyhan (and more) on debunking

UN general assembly laughing at — or perhaps with — trump

penn and teller doing lift of love reveal

Chris Morris: Brass eye

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