How a fiction writer becomes a conspiracy theorist

I teach creative writing at a university, and have seen former students descend into online conspiracy. What does this say about the impulse to write, and the impulse to share?
March 26, 2021

Recently I have watched, fascinated and then horrified, as one of my former students has fallen into a rabbit hole of conspiracy. Over the past few years her Facebook posts have swung sharply rightwards, lately becoming fanatical to the point where they are sometimes hidden or flagged as False Information. There are “articles” on how China is creating a drone army to take over the west published by the Trump-supporting Epoch Times (so extreme that it has been banned from advertising on Facebook), anti-vaccine conspiracies and, from a range of predictable sources, endless streams of pro-Brexit takes and tirades against the
“Muslim threat.”

I considered unfriending her but became darkly fascinated by what I saw. Her follower numbers had increased in the space of a couple of years from only a few hundred to now over 3,000. I also had to confront something in myself—that I had always considered those who fell for these stories to be badly educated and unable to think critically. But somewhere along the line, I had been a part of this person’s education, so what did that say about me and the creative writing workshops I teach? Was I really educating my students to think more openly, freely, to read more critically? If so, it hadn’t worked. But what if my role hadn’t been to educate as we like to think of it—to pass on knowledge or skill—but rather to answer her need for an audience? 

Students who come to study in the workshop essentially want attention: whether for themselves, or for their writing, is a subtle but important distinction. They come, however nervously, to the classroom with writing-in-progress that they want others to read and critique. They want, in some quite personal way, to be read by other people. 

What is learned in this space is the power of words to construct a reality. To sit with a group of strangers picking apart the meaning of a story, and sharing their different readings, has a usefulness outside the classroom: it expands our understanding of each other and improves the accuracy, complexity and originality of what we can say. It gives the student space to think and an audience who will hear those thoughts. It extends our capacity for empathy. Sometimes, when the work is entirely personal—a life story that they want to frame into a book—it can help give a sense of shape to a life. 

At least, these are the lines I trot out whenever I’m asked to defend my teaching practice against those who say, cynically, that the motivation is much more “me, me, me,” and that all the students want is a book deal. Now looking at this timeline of fear and rage, I wonder if that is the case. 

It’s been many years since I taught this particular person, and to be honest I can’t remember her work. Perhaps it was bad—she certainly doesn’t seem to be doing much genuinely creative writing now. I remember her being connected to “wellness” communities—she went on yoga retreats—which makes her lurch to right-wing conspiracy seem so unlikely. (Or perhaps, given the way in which the algorithms work the grooves of human fear and gullibility, inevitable: self-discovery “angel” workshops and anti-vaccination pages capitalise on the same primal fears.) 

And yet it also seems to me that what she is now getting, which she perhaps wasn’t achieving with her creative writing, is attention. She has many followers who reinforce her readings of the world—a world that is a mix of conspiracy, fear, and plain prejudice. People who try to raise objections within her posts get shouted off. There is a sense of participation and ownership, lots of partisan discussion and corroboration. Also, there are up to a dozen posts of some sort a day. She might not be writing much in terms of words—often, a link is shared with a brief comment. But she is still actively participating in a kind of storytelling, and she clearly perceives that she is conducting this, on her terms, in front of a large and engaged audience. 

As I have argued in my book, Radical Attention, social media situates the user at the centre of their own reality. Suddenly, users are the protagonists of their own stories, in a much more amplified way than in real life. Nowhere is that more obvious than on this timeline. Through all her posts, the overarching story my former student presents is often the same—that she is the only one who can see through the confusing mess and has a special, almost secret, access to the truth. 

To me, this is what we in writing workshops might call the “Hero’s Journey 101”: the hero being the chosen person with the special insight who carries the torch against the dying of the light. Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee and other 20th-century gurus of storytelling have analysed this heroic call to adventure as an archetypal western monomyth. It is endlessly iterated in Hollywood films and observable in many tales in Greek mythology. And people love this story. Highlighting hidden connections, trampling on taboos, and highlighting things they would rather you didn’t see feels like being a hero on this journey, too.

My former student is a person who already perceives that the future is frightening and believes that, behind it all, someone must be pulling the strings; that there are secret interests controlling everything, and “others” out there threatening her way of life. Her sense of individualism—heightened by social media platforms—and proclivity for fearfulness has already primed her to be a character susceptible to this kind of mythopoeia. Disdaining the “mainstream” media lapped up by everyone else comes naturally, and so too does reaching for answers served up by algorithms designed to activate the reward centres of the brain (social media leverages the same neural circuits as cocaine and slot machines). The effect bypasses thought, which precludes any hope of critical scepticism, and further amplifies the conspiracy-seeking behaviour. Or to put it in Joseph Campbell’s terms, Facebook becomes an enactment of the “Supernatural Aid,” the entity—like a genie or fairy godmother—that helps the character to the next part of their adventure.

As has become increasingly obvious, Facebook’s huge profits have been built on this kind of “engagement.” (When Facebook tried to rein this in during the immediate aftermath of the 2020 US election by creating a “nicer news feed,” it found that the attempt affected its bottom line.) Political theatre is big business; disinformation sells. Trump’s lies about the election being stolen initially spread fastest on Facebook to a receptive audience who are engaging in a choose-your-own-adventure version of their life story.

The mob that took over the US Capitol building on 6th January seemed to me to be the byproduct of this impulse and ecosystem. Gorged on false news, without any real leader or plan—except the erratic figure of Trump to egg them on—and with no centre which could (yet) hold. Not that the threat of violence wasn’t very real; they had the weapons and motives to pull off a massacre. But the more striking thing was the weird aimlessness of the crowd, parading around with flags and taking selfies as if they were increasingly unsure of what they were doing there. And then the litany of shocked responses when people were subsequently arrested and charged with crimes that they were only partially aware of committing. It was as if they thought they were participating in a live-action role-play of all the weird conspiracies they had been served by the algorithms. Which is not to say they did not hold abhorrent views. But it was also the spectacle of a group driven by anger and prejudice, which had suddenly lost touch with observable reality, that was also so unsettling. (And it’s not just the right that is susceptible to this. Some of the harder parts of the left end up in the same place: angry, violent, authoritarian, racist, misinformed.)

The need for attention is a vital part of being human. As Hannah Arendt notes in The Human Condition, we need attention from people who “see what we see and hear what we hear” to assure us of the reality of the world. But when this attention is manufactured by profit-driven algorithms, what kind of “reality” is being created? My former student clearly craves attention, and has found it among this right-wing tribe, but online attention is a poor substitute for the real thing. Likes, shares and a few comments may constitute “engagement” of a sort, but these are not real, thoughtful responses like those a group of critically engaged students might provide. Which leads to a darker question about what kind of attention we look for when we are telling stories—the varied and critical responses of readers, or the adoration of an automated crowd? 

Scrolling through her timeline, the racism is plain. Her opinions now are certainly not ones I could have imagined her sharing in the workshop, although not because she would have been censored. My attitude to teaching workshops is that they are forums for open exchange: students are free to express their views, whether I agree with them or not. The key criteria of the room is a collective focus on the text. Although critics suggest that the workshop model also “flattens” literature by giving too much space to fads, cults and groupthink, the backstory suggests something else. 

Writing workshops in the US—specifically the famous school at Iowa, which included John Cheever, Philip Roth, Robert Lowell and John Berryman among its faculty, and preceded and influenced the rise of creative writing in the UK—were supported in the fifties and sixties by the CIA as a means of safeguarding democracy. They saw in the structure of the workshop a system that fortified the values of citizenship, combatted the authoritarianism of the communist enemy and promoted literary individualism. Perhaps not ideals anyone can imagine being replicated now by the ersatz “engagement” of Facebook.

But none of this is going to persuade my former student. One of her posts suggests that academics are part of a liberal elite that is brainwashing people into “Cultural Marxism.” So we are left with a difficult question: how do you engage with someone who has been doubly brainwashed—both on a visceral level, by the physical nature of the technology, and by the engine oil of attention? Herein lies the rub. 

When your audience is made up of actual, embodied minds; when you are in a space with people who agree that they have an obligation to each other to read the work, something more interesting than a like happens. Even in the remote classrooms of Zoom, when a group of people agree to gift each other the respect of actually listening, there is space for empathy. This is where the learning really begins. Reading comes in all kinds of forms, not just of the words on the page, but also the self-presentation of the author, the inevitable personal details that are attached to the work, the omissions and evasions that come with showing some private parts of your imagination to others. Everyone is always reading between the lines. It strikes me how vulnerable this makes the students. And over time, how much deeper the friendships that emerge from these groups become.

Perhaps this errant ex-student should take another workshop—but this time she could truly open herself up to the people around her, and switch her focus from the quantity of attention she commands to the quality. On her timeline she is offering herself up to being read—and there’s the other catch of social media. Everything you say on it is public—but the forces who “read” her are not just an ex-teacher, but also the whole structure of data points and notifications, designed to prompt engagement and reinforce screen addiction. In such a forum, is her thinking really “free”? 

During lockdown, people have been writing, thinking, and reading—and there has been an uptick in applications for writing courses. Many are craving something more vital than a like: the sense of authentic connection and intellectual stimulation provided by genuine conversations with others. They want a forum for the exchange of ideas, experience and especially language. And to this extent those rising applications are not another symptom of internet culture, but a push back against it—a rejection of the shallowness of the current spaces where we speak and debate. There is a yearning once again for nuance and an acknowledgement that the stories we tell ourselves and each other matter. For the space within which we acknowledge each other’s shared humanity. As George Saunders said recently in an interview, “the deeper parts of our brain are actually more empathic. If you revise something 20 times, for a mysterious reason, it becomes more social, empathic and compassionate.” In the workshop there is still the warm sense of the collective struggle for the right words with which to describe our brave new world, and while it can’t necessarily fix all the things that Mark Zuckerberg has broken, it can at least allow us to make space for each other, and to feel less afraid.