Sunday, BuzzFeed News’ Charlie Warzel wrote a terrific piece detailing the phenomenon he labeled the “Blue Detectives,” best summarized as “the Alex Jonesification of the left.”
Since the election, [Alex Mohajer has] emerged as one of a number of vigilante investigators dutifully entering evidence into Twitter’s court of public opinion in hope of exposing corruption in Trumpland. Now that Trump is exercising his presidential power, the tweetstorms are intensifying — and growing ever-more conspiratorial. Unlike their more fantastical Infowars analogs, these vigilante investigators steer clear of explicit allegations, hewing instead to grave insinuations. Their evidence is almost exclusively rooted in already-published reporting; they sift through the tea leaves of unconnected media stories, raising questions yet to be answered by the professionals.
Call it the Alex Jonesification of the left or the rise of the Blue Detectives — the pure id of a strand of conspiratorial thought of the left and the anti-Trump movement. It’s intriguing and eyeroll-inspiring all at once, but for the #resistance crowd it’s a mooring force. Most of all, it’s an effective messaging tactic: It’s designed to go viral, to spark outrage — and perhaps even action.
The most (in)famous example of this is obviously Eric Garland’s “Guys. It’s time for some game theory.” Twitter thread, although that is, ah, more eccentric than most examples given that it was fueled by beer and Adderall and employs humor like a twelve-year-old just discovering the internet circa 2005. Nevertheless, many establishment Democrat voices adored it, including the worst Editor-in-Chief left of the aisle.
In an earlier piece, the brilliant Sam Kriss ran a column in Politico taking on the widely-shared “Trial Balloon for a Coup” (cited in the above Warzel piece) and another similar entry in the genre of Medium articles scraping for some (any!) narrative to cling to through which they might understand the Trump administration.
To adopt their own hermeneutic stance: What’s really going on, underneath all the layered lies, and what little puncta might give it away? The most notable clue here is that neither [Yonatan] Zunger nor [Jake] Fuentes are political analysts or journalists or academics or even civil servants. Instead, both come from the tech industry.
Zunger is on the privacy team at Google; Fuentes was behind LevelMoney, an app since acquired by Capital One. They belong to a particular class, with a particular way of looking at the world. Silicon Valley doesn’t really approach politics as a sphere of competing social interests, a space in which people have the ability to make collective demands and collectively alter the conditions of their existences, but as a system—something with an input, an output and reams of complex programming in between. Whenever the tech world turns its attention to politics, there’s always the hint of this nerdish fascination for system: an inattention to what politics actually is or does, but a fetishization of efficiency, the latent notion that all these 18th-century structures really should just be replaced with something you can download on your phone.
Often, this can lead to fascism: Take Curtis Yarvin, a startup founder (backed by Peter Thiel) who proposed replacing all government with a repressive corporate dictatorship, and who—despite his almost total ignorance of political and social theory—ended up providing the pseudo-intellectual underpinnings of what went on to become the neo-Nazi alt-right. The Bay Area might not like the current president, but it’s not intrinsically opposed to racism and repression either. After all, many of its luminaries came out to meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the subcontinent’s very own Donald Trump, a man fairly recently banned from traveling to the U.S. or Britain for his role in deadly anti-Muslim pogroms. But in the hands of stalwart liberals like Zunger and Fuentes, the baseline tech-ideology gives you this: a society in which people are users or consumers, in which democracy is a series of in-app purchases, in which all power belongs to the programmers.
And herein we find a common thread. Eric Garland is also far from a political analyst but rather a tech and business strategist. Of course, not all of the tech community is going about things this way. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick served on Trump’s economic advisory council until his involvement and his company’s capitalization on New York Taxi Workers Alliance’s one-hour strike at the JFK Airport. #DeleteUber was a massive success, although my friends juked to the similarly labor-unfriendly Lyft. Baby steps, I suppose. Meanwhile, tech industry golden boy Elon Musk, most famous for his attempts to popularize the electric car and bring mankind to Mars (The Simpsons even dedicated an entire episode to Musk propaganda), remains on the same Trump advisory council, raising long-stirring concerns that Musk is himself no friend of organized labor and perhaps not what we hope to see in a true renaissance man. This all paints an incredibly fascinating portrait of tech and Silicon Valley in the Trump era that will be interesting to see unfold.
What is certain, at this stage, is that these members of the tech industry see themselves as saviors. Warzel’s piece uses the words of Adam Khan, who Warzel introduces to us as, surprise surprise, “a former marketing consultant and tech guru turned Twitter investigator.”
“There’s so much to be chased down in a Woodward and Bernstein manner and so my job is to ask the questions for others to answer. To ask ‘Why? Why isn’t anyone else pursuing this angle?’” Khan believes without the right pressure and grassroots investigations from people like him, Trump will only claim more power. “There’s a need to apply more pressure to the press,” he said. “It’s sad, but if that’s what it’ll take to get the accountability, we’ll do it.”
Though Khan appears well aware that there’s danger in appearing to be an Alex Jones type, he fails to see exactly why this approach is ineffective. The 24-hour news cycle is again viable, even with no 9/11 or the Vice President shooting a man to cover, thanks to Trump’s constant stream of gaffe and scandal. Notably, Trump leans into this. Knowingly or not, he makes this his power. Less notable than how often he falls on his own sword is that he seems to get up each time. This happened so many times that the American electorate likely lost track of which transgressions were worth caring about. Indeed, the tech conspiracists have no concept of how these narratives interact with the American electorate, simply that they are consumed.
Kriss begins his article by framing the words of these conspiracists as Kremlinology.
Once, there was a strange and subtle art practiced among the elect of London and Washington, called Kremlinology. The idea was that through various interpretative techniques, Cold War intelligence agencies could find out what was really going on in a Soviet Union that—it was assumed—was always hiding some great secret about itself. In practice, it was a farce. Analysts would pore carefully over all the minute details of everything the Soviet state produced, and try to pry open meaningless flecks of data to get at the grand narrative within. Is Kulakov standing to the left of Chernenko in the official Politburo photograph, and what does that mean about the internal power struggle? Why is this transcription of a speech slightly different from this other one? How are the chairs arranged at the state dinner? Who didn’t finish their herring? When a Russian child kicks a ball down the street, is he telling us what they’re doing with the submarines?[…]
In the end, Kremlinology said a lot more about the people practicing it than it ever did about the Soviet Union. Like all fantasies, it expressed a desire. A universe that could make sense, if only you were smart enough to understand it. A politics that could be reduced to the competing ambitions of a few graying and liver-spotted men.
Indeed, the only value I see in our modern incarnation of Kremlinology is what it says about us and our desperation to understand what exactly is happening. Moreover, I’m incredibly wary of expanding what was one of Clinton’s least effective talking points during the election. Absolutely, you could argue that may have been more effective if American intelligence was more forthright about Russian interference during the election, but I would be willing to bet that the fever pitch paranoia hit in December amounts to little when Trump is up for reelection in 2020.
Sure, more could happen, but wait for something concrete and definitive. Even the disaster that was Michael Flynn’s hilariously short tenure as National Security Advisor will barely register as a blip to the American voter.
For all we know, the Eric Garlands of the world could be entirely right on, but such hysteria will only register as yet more noise, and Democrats can’t afford to signal that they’re anything but feverishly obsessed with Americans’ well-being at this critical moment and Americans have no way of knowing how Russia et. al figures into that.
Amateur conspiracy theories (although, as of this writing, Eric Garland is making $47 per month on his Patreon) are utterly useless to the one thing we need: solidarity.