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Inside National Conspiracy Writing Month, a challenge for creating ‘fan fiction about reality’

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Carcassonne (11) Emblem of Freemasonry, the Eye of Providence, or the all-seeing eye.
Photo by: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Next week, a tiny group of researchers will feverishly devote themselves to unmasking the shadowy forces that control the world. Thirty days later, they will reveal a series of shocking conspiracies that only the most perceptive — some might even say paranoid — sleuths could possibly uncover. And if they succeed in their mission, nobody will believe a word of it.

The project is called National Conspiracy Writing Month, an unofficial spinoff of the long-running National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) challenge. Where NaNoWriMo requires participants to write a 50,000-word novel, the inaugural NaCoWriMo asks them to produce a “deep, viable, and complete conspiracy theory.” Its creator Tim Hwang hopes these fake plots can illuminate a pervasive cultural phenomenon — helping both participants and spectators understand how conspiracy theories emerge. He just hopes people don’t take them too seriously.

NaCoWriMo is based on the idea that conspiracy theories are an artistic medium. “For better or for worse (frequently the worse), the genre of conspiracy includes some of the most narratively ambitious, memetically successful, and potent oral traditions of modern American life,” Hwang explains in a Medium post. “Conspiracy theory is a uniquely powerful species of fan fiction about reality, one whose fandoms are capable of creating massive change.” And the best way to understand these stories, he speculates, is to build one yourself.

Conspiracy theories have permeated American politics for decades, but in recent years, they’ve become almost inescapable. President Donald Trump is an avid conspiracy theorist, boosting the long-standing “birther” conspiracy while running for office. Anti-vaccination theories have created a public health emergency. Social media has made spreading these ideas incredibly easy, leading to a reckoning for companies like Facebook and Google. But conspiracies are entertainment, too — one of the summer’s biggest internet memes was a plot to storm Area 51 and “see them aliens.” And Hwang thinks exploring the creative side of conspiracism can help us understand its dangers.

“The origin of this project was a conversation with a friend of mine. We were talking about how nowadays we live in a real world of conspiracy theories,” says Hwang, formerly Google’s AI policy head and the director of Harvard and MIT’s Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. “I think one of the biggest challenges is thinking about, ‘okay, how do we understand what they are and how they spread?’ And I’m always one to learn in a hands-on sort of way.”

“We live in a real world of conspiracy theories.”

When I spoke with Hwang last week, he’d recruited around two dozen NaCoWriMo participants to create “conspiracy kits.” Each kit starts with a Revelation: a 10,000-word document outlining the basis of the theory and its potentially sinister implications for society. To explain the conspiracy, theorists need a Chart: a visual guide that makes their theory “so obvious that it becomes surprising that no one has ever seen it before.” To back it all up, they’ll assemble the Clues: “a corpus of curious facts” for future theorists to examine.

Hwang isn’t revealing participants’ plans, but he says they reflect the diverse nature of real-world conspiracies, including the ways they’re constructed. Some people are building on existing theories, while others are working from scratch. Some start with a premise like “all world leaders are alien lizard people,” then find evidence to back it up. Others find a topic and pick out strange, suggestive connections, waiting for a pattern to emerge.

NaCoWriMo needs to avoid a “‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ situation”

NaCoWriMo is designed to explore the point where logic goes haywire, so a lot of these links will be fanciful — Hwang, for example, plans to expose mysterious ties between American politics and Wrestlemania. (Given Trump’s history in pro wrestling, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.) But the project also raises a strange possibility: what if somebody uncovers a real conspiracy?

“I think there’s this broad gray area that you explore once you really get into the business of trying to work on this,” says Hwang. “I’m hoping we have conspiracies that are across the map — ones that are patently absurd and ones that are just on the edge. That are just sort of ‘Hey, I did some investigation and this seems like a weird connection... but if you keep digging, it kind of seems like this might be true.’”

There’s a darker alternative, too: what if a fake NaCoWriMo theory gains a real-life following? Hwang jokingly acknowledges the risk of a “Foucault’s Pendulum situation” — referring to the 1988 Umberto Eco novel, where a handful of occult enthusiasts construct a story about secret societies for fun, only to see their made-up plot become real. In fact, some actual conspiracy groups, like flat-earthers, blur the line between ironic joke, earnest movement, and bizarre entertainment phenomenon. Many people even speculate that the deadly serious QAnon theory started as a prank.

“There are people interested in learning about conspiracy theories as a way of subverting conspiracy theories.”

NaCoWriMo’s goal is dissecting “conspiracy genre” narrative tricks, not fooling readers. “One of the intriguing intellectual challenges of all this is ‘How can you do this in a way that seems good?’” says Hwang. “Conspiracy theories have a lot of dark purposes and have motivated a lot of bad action. And I think there are people interested in learning about conspiracy theories as a way of subverting conspiracy theories.”

As sociologist Ted Goertzel told The Verge last year, though, one goal of real conspiracy theorists is “to prove that nothing is provable, that all assertions are arbitrary.” Creating an arbitrary conspiracy theory doesn’t necessarily subvert that goal. And people often don’t believe conspiracy theories for rational reasons — they just want to feel like the world makes sense.

Politics professors Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum even argue that the “classic” conspiracy model, with its charts and obsessive research, barely applies to modern theories like QAnon and Pizzagate. In their recent book A Lot of People Are Saying, Muirhead and Rosenblum describe a “new conspiracism” that relies on innuendo and wish fulfillment — in other words, “conspiracy without any theory.”

That won’t fly during NaCoWriMo. “In some ways, we may be quite old-fashioned, in that the hope is that there’s some legwork that goes on here,” says Hwang. “When you get midway through the month, you should be like, ‘ugh, I don’t know if I can keep going on this thing.’”

Whatever its real-world effects, NaCoWriMo is an intriguing fiction challenge. Hwang welcomes people who want to write a NaNoWriMo novel about their conspiracy kit — or even write code that will generate a conspiracy theory, true to the spirit of spinoff movement NaNoGenMo.

Ultimately, Hwang thinks of conspiracies as an extension of our natural pattern-finding impulses — not just a political enterprise, but part of the same basic human urge that produces pareidolia and TV fan theories. “I think actually what’s interesting is that the origin of it is investigation, it’s trying to connect dots. And in a lot of cases, we really admire people who are able to find connections between things that other people have not seen before,” he says. “‘Conspiracy theory’ has a certain kind of baggage about politics and sinister doings and smoke-filed rooms. But I think in some ways, the cognitive exercise of it has a lot of parallels with a lot of things.”