I talk to the creator of the Conspiracy Chart
Abbie Richards' Conspiracy Chart went viral on TikTok. As COVID and an election envelopes the US, it's a good time to revisit it
I am 37. Old. A dinosaur.
This means I love things from the 90s (Jurassic Park), have a sore back (L1 - L5, the lumbar region) and struggle to understand the way TikTok operates.
That isn’t to say I’m not fascinated and in awe of what’s being created there — it’s just a little foreign to me. And from what I can tell, when adults get invested in TikTok it becomes a true horror show. Case and point: Honey House.
But it’s also full of unbridled creativity, smarts and humour. Cutting satire and sharp politics.
Or as Abbie Richards just described it to me:
“TikTok is like a 3D meme with text, image, and audio. The complete democratization of content on the platform means that each video you create is judged on merit, based on its performance, so any video can take off!”
Abbie Richards created a magnificent Conspiracy Chart that went big — going bonkers on TikTok, then jumping over to Instagram, Twitter and a raft of other places.
Here’s her chart over on Twitter:
Abbie’s illustration looks at the distinction between various types of conspiracy theory belief. I touched on this a little in my piece with debunker Mick West: How to talk to people stuck in a conspiracy theory hellscape:
“Conspiracy theorists are not all the same. People who think that 9/11 was a “let it happen” conspiracy are not the same as people who think the Queen is a child eating lizard, and not even the same as some other 9/11 theorists…”
The point being, you can’t put all conspiracy theories and theorists in the same basket. Just because someone’s a bit iffy about aspects of 9/11 doesn’t mean they believe kids are being kidnapped en-masse to harvest adrenochrome.
These distinctions aren’t a huge revelation — but what Abby did was illustrate it and present it in a way that made it a revelation.
It resonated and it spread. It was honest, simple — and thanks to her TikTok persona, funny.
I was eager to talk to Abbie about her process, as well as her thoughts since the chart took the internet by storm.
Hi Abbie! Tell me a bit about yourself — like what does most of your life consist of right now, what was the last good song you listened to, do you have a cat? The important stuff.
Hi David! My life is mainly going to grad school and making TikToks. I only just started my masters in climate studies in the Netherlands two months ago so I’m still getting adjusted to life her.
I’m locked inside like many other people at the moment and most of my classes are online so in many ways it feels the same as when I was in the US.
I did have a cat back in the US but now instead I have twenty Dutch roommates.
Ha! Okay. So I am old so don’t go on Tiktok unless someone sends me a link, so I think I found one of your videos showing off your chart via Twitter. I guess take me back to why you decided to make a chart mapping out levels of conspiracy thinking?
It, as many great ideas are, was born from a Tinder conversation. I was talking with someone about conspiracies and just thought that it was ridiculous that there was no system to categorize them.
The label “conspiracy theory” is applied to so many topics ranging from actual events to violent ideological beliefs. I think distinguishing between the different forms a “conspiracy theory” can take helps people to draw the line at when one becomes dangerous.
I really just made the chart for myself and then I shared it with a couple of friends who really liked it so I posted it online. Then the Internet handled the rest.
Have you always had an interest in misinformation and disinformation and so on, or did you just look at the madness unfolding over the last year in particular?
As someone with a climate science background I’ve always been fascinated by the general distrust of science that has emerged in the past few decades.
I really got sucked into the mis/disinformation wormhole in June when I went viral all over Twitter and TikTok for something completely different (I ran a TikTok page devoted to hating golf and I stand by that account).
I woke up the next morning to someone who was lurking in a Nazi group-chat sending me screenshots of them attempting to dox me.
I tried to file a police report, but the police didn’t know what doxxing is and they just told me it was “my fault for posting on the internet” and to “turn on my security settings” (they really don’t understand cybersecurity).
When I called to check up they had never even filed the report. I tell this story for two reasons:
1) It felt like a wake up call that I had to learn to protect myself online
2) I started actively trying to understand how people come to subscribe to the hateful ideologies these groups use.
Why did you choose Tiktok to express your thoughts?
Because TikTok is the best! TikTok is like a 3D meme with text, image, and audio. The complete democratization of content on the platform means that each video you create is judged on merit, based on its performance, so any video can take off.
Also I really enjoy shooting and editing short form videos. It’s a fun and creative project for me. Plus the adults of the world have written TikTok off as a “silly app for dancing teens” and they’ve completely missed the art, education, and activism that’s been developing there as well.
I get the feeling that Tiktok was this place kids were getting into this conspiracy nonsense for the first time — like devoid of context and information. Is that fair?
TikTok is equally as adept at spreading misinformation as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or any other social media platform that employs an algorithm that is designed to increase watch time and engagement rates.
However where Facebook or Twitter may insert a fact check, TikTok has yet to implement that feature.
A TikTok will perform well and “go viral” if it has high watch times and a high number of shares.
Unfortunately when people are anxious about the state of the world they’re more likely to watch and share a video which provides them with a simple, concrete answer.
Especially now, during the second wave of COVID, people are mentally and emotionally exhausted. Social media algorithms as a whole will meet our lacking mental health with an endless supply of misinformation that makes us feel like we have found truth in an ocean of uncertainty.
Do you have people in your own life who’ve fallen into any of this stuff? Like have you had to face this in person, or are you just observing this all from a distance?
I remember having a very heated debate with my father in April about whether or not COVID was created in a lab.
As much as I pointed out that his rejection of scientific consensus was harmful in that it distracted from actual issues and instilled feelings of distrust, I couldn’t get him to let go of the idea.
I was furious with him.
He has always been an extremely logical and intelligent person. Now he denies that he ever believed the theory. I think he’s embarrassed ever since they explained that the molecular structure of COVID ruled out the possibility it was made in a lab.
Let me be clear, my dad is not a conspiracy theorist by any means.
He’s hyper rational and very emotionally intelligent. But I think that the fact that someone like him could fall prey to one of these ideas is what alerted me to the gravity of the situation.
Beyond that, most of my exposure came from having an online platform where QAnon accounts would comment or troll my account.
Here in Europe, I also have a lot of friends who have lost family members down these rabbit holes as well.
What do you think resonated so much about your chart, and also just your videos breaking down this stuff in general?
I’m still trying to figure that out.
I think part of the problem my chart addressed was this vagueness of the term “conspiracy theory.” Because it simultaneously means something like MKUltra (which we know happened) and there’s a cabal of child sacrificing, blood drinking celebrities (this is not a real thing I’m so tired of addressing it).
I think that breaking down such an all encompassing term really helped people to understand at what point the term is being used to promote dangerous and hateful ideologies.
My chart also acknowledges the fun in conspiracies (or at least it attempts to).
Conspiracies are pretty natural to the way we think and sometimes that speculation can be fun. Most people have believed in at least one conspiracy at one point or another and we shouldn’t be shaming anyone for that.
The videos are intentionally inoculative material.
I want to expose people to ideas that could radicalize them but with an accompanying dose of critical thinking. That way when they actually are exposed they have built up immunity.
I certainly didn’t expect the videos to take off in the way they have. I try to keep the videos fun and interesting (and funny if the material is light enough) which I think makes it easier for people to open up to receiving new information.
Okay — when did people start coming for you? I mean, you are a woman online AND you are talking conspiracy theories, and things like QAnon which is a nasty lil’ group of people.
Well, they first came for me when I was just a simple girl online talking about why golf is a waste of greenspace.
So as soon as I realised I was about to go viral again for this chart I called my dad and was like “Here we go again.”
Going viral usually means you have to change your passwords, set up new systems to block out hate mail, and just generally prepare to be emotionally exhausted until things die down.
This time I was better prepared because I had people who were helping me. For instance, I had someone who was looking at 4chan for me to assess threats so that I could avoid reading what they were saying.
Never look at 4chan. It is 100% of the time bad for your mental health.
They come for you immediately. Someone emailed me over 200 times to call me a “satanic kike.”
I also get a lot of “when the race war starts I can't wait to see you get raped/killed.”
SOOOOO many asking me which Jew was paying me to make the chart or how much Bill Gates/George Soros was paying me. (For the record if I’m being paid I’m still waiting on my check; I’m a grad student I need that coin).
The threats don’t bother me too much because I think my chart must’ve really pushed some buttons for them to respond with so much hatred.
Ideally, from my perspective, they hate the chart because they see it as a threat to their worldview so they lash out at the person who created the threat.
If Nazis think I’m a threat then I must be doing a good job.
What's your favourite insult or piece of criticism thrown out at you so far?
This is the exact DM I got from a former pro-BMXer turned disgraced international emcee (typos and all):
“I’m only following you to watch you fail. Also..when you’re laying awake at night wondering why men don’t find you attractive..it’s not your physical..(although you do look unhealthy) it’s your brain. Just saying. You’re a detriment to society and I hope ou find god… and a treadmill”
I love that one so much. Because he has well over 100k followers so he knew that this wasn’t anonymous and he didn’t care. Here’s a list of all the things I love about this message:
A forty-five year old ponytailed bike boy fueled by Monster Energy and vape juice doesn’t want to sleep with me. Oh no. I’m so sad. I’ll never recover from this.
Apparently I lay awake at night wondering why men don’t find me attractive. This man has never met a woman and it shows.
He harasses and insults a stranger online and then tells her she needs to find god. It’s just mwah *french kiss* absolutely immaculate levels of irony
What have you learnt yourself since you've put your views out there, and they've gone so widely? Has anything else about conspiracy theory culture dawned on you in a new way?
I’ve learned that I’m a more effective science communicator than I ever imagined. I didn’t really expect this at all but I seem to be good at explained nuanced topics in an understandable, bite sized format.
I have a background in science and in comedy so I was able to combine them in a way that works well for science communication.
So many things about conspiracy theory culture have dawned on me in a new way since this began! I really came into this knowing a bit about conspiracies and the psychology behind them, but now that I’ve been put in touch with experts and specialists I’ve learned so much more about the cultural significance of conspiracies and the threat they pose.
I also now lurk in a bunch of private QAnon chats so that I can understand how these people are thinking as well. I think the collective narcissism and the in-group positivity are new elements to me but I see them EVERYWHERE now. Also shhh don’t tell the QAnons that I’m lurking.
What is your overall goal? Are you trying to get people before they fall down the rabbit hole, or are you trying to potentially get people out? Or are you explaining the situation to those just observing all this stuff going “what the fuck is happening?!”
I can’t pull anyone out. I don’t have that power. A person can get out only if they decide they want to. My goals are:
Inoculation: exposing people to misinformation or flawed arguments and explaining why they are wrong and harmful
Critical thinking and scientific literacy: I think we’re in a critical thinking crisis where so many people are overwhelmed with the amount of information they are exposed to that they don’t know which sources are legitimate. Add a general lack of scientific literacy into the mix and now we have a population of people who don’t understand/trust scientific authorities and who turn to simpler, less complicated (utterly false) answers.
Support: SOOO many people have lost loved ones down these rabbit holes and they feel very alone. I get messages every day from people asking how to get their parents/sisters/cousins/uncles/friends back from the point of no return. I want these people to know that they aren’t alone. So many people are dealing with the same problems. My goal is to help them understand, as compassionately as possible, why their friends/family believe these things. I’m also working on building a community for them in a Discord server as well because I think they need to be communicated with one another.
Any advice you’d leave for someone who is struggling with a friend or family member who’s fallen into this mess?
Keep talking to them! As frustrating as it is, you may be one of the last strings they have that is attaching them to reality. If you sever ties with them you’ll likely just push them further into their radicalisation network.
Try to keep them focused on their own life.
Find out what is motivating/inspiring them. One of the few ways that has been shown to reduce conspiratorial thinking is create a goal-driven mindset.
Okay thanks so much — and good luck over there with the whole election thing. Jesus!!
Thanks!! I just voted last night! Trump 2020!!! (Obviously totally kidding I’d vote for a broken cinder block before I voted for him) Please pray for us. Or just send us Jacinda. Tradesies?
We’re keeping her! Thanks so much, Abbie.
Before I go, I wanted to tell you about something cool happening next week. Nine Inch Nails — a band I’ve admired for as long as I can remember — are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On November 6th, at 11am PST, I’ll be hosting a conversation with Trent Reznor and his fellow inductees: Alessandro Cortini, Robin Finck, Danny Lohner, Atticus Ross, Ilan Rubin and Chris Vrenna.
It’ll be available all over the place on social media and YouTube — so I hope you can tune in. I’ll be taking some fan questions, too.
30 years is a lot to cover. I’ll thrilled, honoured and have a few butterflies.
You can find out more details on NIN.com:
JOIN ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME INDUCTEES ALESSANDRO CORTINI, ROBIN FINCK, DANNY LOHNER, TRENT REZNOR, ATTICUS ROSS, ILAN RUBIN AND CHRIS VRENNA FROM NINE INCH NAILS IN A LIVE CONVERSATION. HOSTED BY JOURNALIST AND DIRECTOR DAVID FARRIER, THE BAND MEMBERS WILL SHARE STORIES AND REMINISCE ON OVER 30 YEARS OF NIN.
THE LIVE STREAM WILL BE AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE VIA NINE INCH NAILS TWITTER, YOUTUBE AND FACEBOOK PAGES.
HBO WILL BROADCAST THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME 2020 INDUCTION CEREMONY ON NOV. 7 AT 8PM EST/PT, HONORING INDUCTEES NINE INCH NAILS, DEPECHE MODE AND MORE. TUNE IN ON HBO OR STREAM ON HBO MAX & SIRIUSXM.
In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed my chat with Abbie.
I think it’s really important to remember what she said towards the end, about what to do with friends and family who’ve fallen down into the pit of nonsense:
“Keep talking to them! As frustrating as it is, you may be one of the last strings they have that is attaching them to reality. If you sever ties with them you’ll likely just push them further into their radicalisation network.”
Stay safe and talk soon,