Abbie Richards, a climate science student in the Netherlands, was looking with bewilderment at the state of her home country of the United States. So many conspiracy theories echoing, particularly ahead of the election.
Struggling to wrangle all of them for a paper, she made a chart naming some 100 conspiracies dominating the social media world to, she hoped, make some sense of the chaos. The first effort was black-and-white, which she posted to social media. That got some attention, and with the help of a graphic designer, the Boston native created a more powerful chart, colored to depict the wildest conspiracies up high -- like Holocaust denial, "white supremacy" and other racist theories -- then naming less threatening or prevalent ones lower down as the chart narrowed.
It seemed like a good idea to dispel some of the most out-there and dangerous myths that have dominated social media in recent years, with a heavy focus on politics.
The 24-year-old's creation took off, gaining wide attention as it spread online. Trolls, however, have hijacked her chart and substituted key words in it to suggest such issues as white supremacy, patriarchy, veganism, the Holocaust itself and other hard realities were actually part of the conspiracy chart that she created.
They were not, and the fakes are just that, only adding to the confusion that runs amok on social media in the current political climate.
"It's the post-truth era in which we live, where people reject information from mainstream authorities," Richards told Lead Stories on October 27, 2020, referring to what prompted her creation. "It was the right time, right place, and the chart took off. It really helps people to mentally process it."
The "Liberal Chart," she said, bothers her the most:
There's a lot of Hitler apologists. There's just so much Holocaust denial and that, and it's just the anti-Semitism at the top that is repulsive to me. Obviously, the racism is super prevalent, and no less gross. It's just that the nature of conspiracy theories and the nature of stereotypes against Jewish people go hand in hand. So, there's still so much racism in there."
This following one is titled the same as Richard's original, but Richards has marked it to show it is not her work:
She tweeted about the fake chart on October 5, 2020:
If you see this chart (or anything similar) floating around, it was made by some 4chan trolls, not me.-- Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) October 5, 2020
Didn't mean to trigger you 😘 pic.twitter.com/BIo1dBxxdo
For example, Richard's placement of George Soros, the billionaire whom the right believes controls and bankrolls Black Lives Matter and the leftist movement antifa, is replaced in the "Liberal Chart" by the phrase "china good, america bad."
In the second example, "white supremacy" and "homosexuality is natural" are at the top of the inverted pyramid, suggesting that these are the most bizarre conspiracies.
It's upsetting because I made the chart and put a lot of time and effort into trying to make it something to counters the hatred in the world. To then have that very intentionally used to promote more hatred and bigotry, that's what hurts."
Here is the original thread posted by Richards:
Breaking down The Conspiracy Chart part 1: pic.twitter.com/IxEyALvliS-- Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) September 26, 2020
On October 15, 2020, the same day as President Trump's town hall event on NBC, Richards posted another breakdown of conspiracies. This time, also on Twitter, she focused solely on QAnon, which believes Trump is saving the world from a child-trafficking satanic cult, and the reasons YouTube is considering banning it:
What's QAnon and why did YouTube ban it? Explained. Very briefly. pic.twitter.com/WkVUBIz4tH-- Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) October 15, 2020
Well, I don't know much about the movement, other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate, but I don't know much about the movement. I have heard that it is gaining in popularity. And from what I hear, it's -- these are people that, when they watch the streets of Portland, when they watch what happened in New York City in just the last six or seven months -- but this was starting even four years ago when I came here. Almost four years; can you believe it?
These are people that don't like seeing what's going on in places like Portland and places like Chicago and New York and other cities and states. And I've heard these are people that love our country, and they just don't like seeing it.
So I don't know, really, anything about it other than they do, supposedly, like me. And they also would like to see problems in these areas -- like, especially the areas that we're talking about -- go away. Because there's no reason the Democrats can't run a city. And if they can't, we will send in all of the federal -- whether it's troops or law enforcement, whatever they'd like -- we'll send them in. We'll straighten out their problem in 24 hours or less.
Q: And, Mr. President, at the crux of the theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind or a believer in?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I haven't -- I haven't heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to put myself out there."
Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, a day after the town hall, took Trump to task for his words on QAnon:
So, what is it? In an explainer from The New York Times October 16, 2020, it boils down:
QAnon is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that allege, falsely, that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring.
QAnon followers believe that this clique includes top Democrats including Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and George Soros, as well as a number of entertainers and Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres and religious figures including Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood.
According to QAnon lore, Mr. Trump was recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016 in order to break up this criminal conspiracy, end its control of politics and the media, and bring its members to justice."
QAnon is the conspiracy that Richards finds most dominant right now -- even in Europe. She added:
Especially in the U.S. But I'm in Europe, and in Europe in the past couple of weeks, QAnon has just taken over. It is running rampant here. So, I've been brought into a bunch of different circles that are trying to fight that. I personally felt overwhelmed by QAnonon, especially with the election coming up. I don't know if I'd call it baffling, because I can understand. I don't want to say completely understand, but I understand why they believe what they do. Not that they're true. But those people are anxious and scared and feel powerless. And especially the middle of COVID. I get that we're in a pandemic and their mental health -- all of our mental health is worse. So, I think it's the one that is occupying the most brain space for me personally at the moment."
However, QAnon is just one of the theories that Richards points out in her breakdown. Another biggie, which is wrapped into QAnon beliefs: Pizzagate, which is the belief that Hillary Clinton and top Democrats, including Obama, ran a pedophile ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza shop. According to Esquire's explanation:
What the hell is Pizzagate?
It all started in early November 2016, when Clinton campaign manager John Podesta's email was hacked and the messages were published by Wikileaks. One of the emails, according to The New York Times, was between Podesta and James Alefantis, the owner of D.C. pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. The message discussed Alefantis hosting a possible fundraiser for Clinton.
Users of the website 4Chan began speculating about the links between Comet Ping Pong and the Democratic Party, according to the BBC, with one particularly vile connection burbling to the surface: the pizzeria is the headquarters of a child trafficking ring led by Clinton and Podesta.
Yes. The conspiracy theory that prominent members of the Democratic Party are somehow involved in a global child-trafficking ring took root on far-right conservative websites. According to the BBC, the conspiracy theory linking this very false theory to Comet kicked around 4Chan until someone posted a long document with "evidence" to a now-banned alt-right section of Reddit several days before the U.S. election. The alt right is a fringe group of far-right extremists--comprised, mostly, of white supremacists and old-fashioned racists--who share their views and various forms of propaganda online."
Another is "deep state," the belief that rogue operators inside the Trump administration and the military are working with mainstream media to overthrow Trump -- in effect, a government within the government. The existence of, or belief in, a deep state date to well before Trump entered politics, according to this story by Politico and this piece by Business Insider. But blaming Trump's troubles on "deep state" operatives is stretching the real meaning.
From the Politico story:
For Trump, a man who has always defined himself against caricatured enemies, the deep state is a useful boogeyman that allows him to merge several disparate political targets--real, exaggerated and imagined--into a single villain he can use to rally his supporters. The media's role is particularly crucial: When Fox News host Sean Hannity tweeted on June 16 that he would open his show that night with an examination of "the deep state's allies in the media," the president of the United States retweeted him. It's not easy to make conservatives distrust law enforcement and intelligence officials, but showing them to be in league with snotty liberal reporters makes that possible."
Here are two more examples, one from the yellow "Science Denials" section and another from the pink "Leaving Reality" section of Richards' chart:
From Science Denial, '5G':
As Lead Stories and many fact-checkers have noted in countless stories, including here and here, some believe that the new cellular technology not only is patently dangerous to humans, but also meant to control humans.
From Leaving Reality, 'Prince Charles vampire':
According to CBS News, Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II, are apparently related -- quite distantly -- to Vlad the Impaler, the inspiration for the famous vampire, Dracula. But as this story from CheatSheet explains, there is, clearly, no truth to the idea that Prince Charles is a vampire.
The royal family has seen many -- we repeat many -- conspiracies theories over the years. But, none quite compare to the idea of who (or, what) Prince Charles really is. Some speculate the future king is a vampire -- yes, ladies and gentlemen, a vampire.
In 2011, Prince Charles promoted a television show inspired by his fascination and interest in Romania's Transylvania. He revealed his relation to 15th-century Romanian prince, Vlad the Impaler, who was the inspiration behind Bram Stoker's 1897 story of "Dracula." However, the Prince of Wales has no interest in blood sucking.
According to CBS, the future king touched on his genealogy, which proves his relation to the infamous prince. Prince Charles used his blood connection to Vlad the Impaler to promote his interests in the future of the country and focus on the conservation of its forests. He even owns a home in Transylvania!
Of course, vampires aren't actually real, which makes the conspiracy theory quite comical. Aside from their genealogy, Prince Charles and Vlad the Impaler don't have much in common. After all, the Romanian prince was famous for sadism and torture with tens of thousands of victims. Prince Charles isn't exactly known for torturous executions."
Despite the immense amount of hate mail and harassment she has received, Richards doesn't regret making the chart and sharing it online.
I also get messages every day, saying 'it's really helped.' I get messages that it really helps people to understand [the conspiracies]. And, you know, people are using it now to teach classes or to put it in their papers or dissertations, So yes, it's certainly a helpful framework. It will not eradicate all misinformation and disinformation, -- that's something that we have to keep going forward with. It's not going to be fixed by a single chart. But I think for some people it helps. I think, mostly, it helps people who have friends and family who've gone down the rabbit holes. And they're trying to understand...I want to help us understand, as a society, why we're believing the things that we're believing."
It's an uphill battle to win people over to truth when social media allows for such rapid spread of conspiracies, but Richards has been contacted by universities and think tanks about her work. And she won't give up. In fact, on October 3, 2020, she posted this to Twitter, urging people to spread her chart:
Here's a link to the new pdf of my Conspiracy Chart.-- Abbie Richards (@abbieasr) October 3, 2020
(She got a makeover)
Download it. Share it.
Set it as your grandfather's lock screen. He won't know how to change it. https://t.co/K8GPl8p4jJ